Writing: An Act of Faithful Discipleship

There is an inherent need in Christian life and ministry to write. From seminary essays submitted for class to the sermons and devotionals written in the pastorate, the written word is an expression of what we think and believe about the Christian life. As a professor teaching practical theology and Wesley studies, it isn’t unusual for a student to ask how they can write better—and, praise be, not always following a grade they weren’t thrilled with!

Writing is a craft. It takes practice to develop and hone the skills indicative of any genre of writing. I tell my students there are several easy things to address. Pay attention to format and style conventions. Use the active voice. Keep things simple, but not simplistic. Proof-read. Even better, find a trusted friend, family member, or colleagues who will be a helpful proof-reader.

Ultimately, though, improving our writing means engaging an idea with clarity. Writing is not just putting ideas on paper. The writing process demands we think about what we know in order to communicate it to others. A thoughtful piece of writing does three things. It expresses what our thesis is, demonstrates how the idea informs and shapes our thinking, and communicates why the idea is important.

Writing on an idea and sharing its relevance are likely internal, inherent motivators for persons pursuing formal theological studies. The fields of theology, biblical studies, and church history are ripe with ideas. These ideas are the fodder for those of us who seek to preach, provide pastoral care, and help mature persons in faith. But it can be that second aspect of writing, demonstrating how we understand the idea as a result of engagement and critical reflection, that can be the most challenging aspect of the writing task.

I observe three common traps that ensnare students. The first two traps are opposite sides of the same coin. In the first case, the essay does not engage any text or author at all, while the second relies on a wide, maybe even vast, variety of sources. The result is, even if written well, the essay does not offer the kind of disciplined, engaged reflection with a text required at the graduate level. The third trap is the use of an excessive number of quotes or long passages. It may even include some biblical passages used to augment the thesis as presented. This trap, unfortunately, leaves the writer of the essay voiceless, with no real opportunity to share what they understand.

Maybe the highest learning curve for seminarians to scale in their academic writing is constructing a conversation with the texts and authors that inform the thesis of an essay, sermon, or devotional. Asking the “how” question in a variety of ways can help open up this essential conversation. How does this scholar of the required reading ground my work and understanding of this concept? How does this quotation help me see further than I did previously? How does this idea help me uncover truths that were hidden or partially in view until now? How does this text resonate with my experience? How does it cause dissonance? How do I respond to this concept in light of what the author has had to say and the ministry God has called me to?

Choosing relevant quotes helps create a dialogue with a given text. Interacting with the chosen quote creates a conversation that allows you, the writer, to share what you think. Include a quote or its most essential aspect that addresses the point you are trying to make. Unpack the quote. Explain it, discussing it in your own words. It might be that your dialogue with the source means discussing the strengths or weaknesses of the idea. Give an example that supports the claim being made or contradicts it.

A text and its author might be your primary conversation partner, but interacting with them doesn’t mean you necessarily agree. It’s possible to point to another author or source for a contrasting point of view. Or it could even mean amending the idea for a particular circumstance. In these cases, it is a good rule of thumb to see if the parameters of the assignment allow for this kind of further discussion. It might be that, in a shorter piece focusing on a particular concept, there just isn’t room to entertain the conversation further.

As an act of faithful Christian discipleship, writing provides the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of an idea by engaging in dialogue with relevant texts from across the centuries. Seminary and graduate theological studies require that you demonstrate your thinking about course materials through writing. It is appropriate preparation for when your parishioners ask you about an issue because they believe you to be a reliable and worthy example for their own formation and discipleship.

The Trinity as Practical Divinity: John Fletcher

John Fletcher, from the 1760s to his death in 1785, was recognized along with John and Charles Wesley as a major leader in Methodism. Born in Switzerland, he came to England in 1750, became a Methodist in 1753, and was ordained in the Church of England in 1756. His parish in Madeley became a center for Methodism. In 1781 he married another prominent Methodist leader, Mary Bosanquet, and sadly died of tuberculosis in 1785.

Fletcher was a gifted theological defender of Wesley’s theology and is best known for his series of Checks to Antinomianism, widely read by Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic well into the nineteenth century. But our attention here will be on his theology of Trinitarian dispensations, most fully developed in his The Portrait of Saint Paul, completed in 1779.

The relation of this aspect of Fletcher’s theology to that of John Wesley has been the subject of academic dispute, with gifted scholars on both sides of the debate. For our purposes we can simply note that Fletcher saw himself as faithfully developing Wesley’s theology, and that his ideas joined with those of the Wesley brothers in shaping subsequent Methodism.

We are fortunate to now have a thorough and insightful examination of Fletcher’s Trinitarianism in J. Russell Frazier, True Christianity: The Doctrine of Dispensations in the Thought of John William Fletcher (Pickwick, 2014). What I will do here is provide a brief outline drawn from this excellent study.

After an initial chapter discussing the milieu of Fletcher’s theology, Frazier argues that its foundations are in God’s love for all creation. This love “causes grace to take precedence in divine-human relations; prevenient grace is the keystone of Fletcher’s theological system” (57). In contrast to the Calvinist “disparity between grace and nature,” Fletcher “argued for their correspondence” (54). Prevenient grace enables persons to know God, which is the precondition for persons to be aware of their need for repentance. Thus, human knowledge of God is progressive and has its source in prevenient grace (57).

At the heart of Fletcher’s thought is a dynamic theology of history with Christ as the goal, with the particular goal for humanity restoration to the image of God (59). Like Wesley, Fletcher believed that there was a covenant of works prior to the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall. But Fletcher further develops the covenant of grace by arguing it unfolds historically in three dispensations or ages—that of the Father is marked by “the promise of a Redeemer,” that of the Son begins with John the Baptist and anticipates the coming of the Spirit, and that of the Spirit begins at Pentecost and awaits the second coming of Christ (61).

Central to Fletcher’s vision is that God acts in each of these dispensations to redeem humanity, and humans are enabled by grace to respond. This holds together the sovereignty of God (in which grace enables humans to respond and directs history toward its goal) with human freedom (enabled by grace, we then respond to God).

Against some critics of Fletcher, Frazier insists this Trinitarian dispensationalism is not a “chronological modalism” but a “trinitarian pattern of the disclosure of God in history as God accommodates divinity to the human condition, which results in various degrees of the knowledge of God” (90). “God desires to reveal as fully as possible but only as fully as human beings are capable of receiving” (78).

This is more than a theology of history. “Salvation history occurs at two levels: a macro or universal level, which entails the divine effort to redeem humanity, and a micro or personal level in which the doctrine of dispensation functions as an order of salvation. The micro scheme reflects the macro scheme” (62). Thus Fletcher’s Trinitarian dispensationalism “reflects both the progressive nature of God’s revelation in the history of humanity and the progressive nature of God’s restoration of individual human beings in the image of God with the goal of Christian perfection” (63).

This means the truth of God is revealed both in history and to each human life progressively, and persons are enabled by the Spirit to respond to the degree of truth they have. Yet these are degrees of one truth: “the gospel is one, and Christ is the foundation for each of the dispensations,” because Christ is the truth (85). Thus, the faith of righteous heathen, faithful Jews, awakened sinners, those justified, and those entirely sanctified varies in degree but not in kind, as all are responding to degrees of the same truth.

Frazier devotes an extensive chapter to each of the three dispensations, covering both their universal and personal levels. In this short article I can only recommend Frazier’s analysis and insight in theses chapters and urge persons to read them for themselves.

It might seem that Fletcher’s dispensational theology is a bit abstract, but that is not the way Fletcher saw it. For him it was practical divinity in the Wesleyan spirit. Frazier identifies this as its central purpose: “God has, through history, accommodated divine revelation to the limitations of finite human capacity and calls Christian ministers to accommodate themselves to their hearers (congregants) in order for them to appropriate the Christian message” (211).

In any congregation there are persons in different stages along the way of salvation: “sinners, awakened sinners, believers” (213). Frazier shows that Fletcher’s sermons are filled with addresses to each of these categories under a variety of synonymous terms. Fletcher believed that in “order to minister effectively, ministers need to have understanding of the three stages of faith” (220), not only for “preaching, but also” for “every aspect of ministerial practice” (221). Likewise, mature members of the parish have a responsibility to accommodate to those who are less mature.

God’s gracious accommodation to humanity is rooted in love. Likewise, ministers should practice accommodation with those to whom they minister, because the “reigning characteristic” of ministry is love (222).

Discipleship after COVID: Field Preaching

Recently I was reminded of an old Peanuts cartoon. Linus and Sally are walking together with their lunch boxes. Over the first three frames, Sally says, “I would have made a good evangelist. You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his.” In the final frame, Linus asks, “How’d you do that?” to which Sally responds, “I hit him with my lunch box!”

Most Christians I know have desperately missed their church during the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing most mainline Protestants don’t seem to miss is evangelism. And part of the reason they don’t miss it is that many imagine that evangelism is pretty similar to Sally’s understanding. The result is that many mainline Protestants have been more than happy to embrace an idea falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Everywhere you go preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”

For Wesleyans and Franciscans, this sentiment is entirely problematic. Franciscan scholars find no evidence Francis ever said these words. Furthermore, the phrase goes against the overarching sentiment of his ministry, the focus of which was preaching. Remember St. Francis thought proclaiming the gospel with words was so important that he preached to the animals! As for Wesleyans, the phrase cuts against the heart of the church’s evangelistic task to announce the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and his coming kingdom.

In this series, I’m exploring how various aspects of discipleship may change after COVID-19. In the previous article, I discussed the Methodist practice of family worship. Family worship was the Methodist practice of gathering all in a household, be it family, guests, or farmworkers, whoever was in the house that day, to pray, sing, read the Bible, and hear a short exhortation. In many ways this practice was as important to Methodism as society meetings, class meetings, and field preaching, for it was in family worship that people first learned to discuss their faith, to pray out loud, and to preach. The Christian life was learned in the Methodist home and then confirmed in society and class meetings. Today many Christians seem eager for local churches to facilitate the bulk of discipleship and family nurture. As more people are vaccinated there will be a rush to return to “normal” church life. But Methodists would be wise, I argue, to reimagine what family worship looks like today and stop outsourcing key aspects of family discipleship to local churches.

In this article, I want to think about how evangelism may shift after COVID-19. For Methodists, the heart of evangelism has always been the announcement of the gospel story. In early Methodism, evangelism began in field preaching. Field preaching, the practice of preaching anywhere outside a church pulpit, is often seen as the archetype of Methodist evangelism and it was the setting in which most people first encountered Methodism. Importantly, people who came to field preaching were invited to engage the gospel in a deeper way at the smaller and more personal society and class Meetings where they were further evangelized. But the most personal place for conversation about the gospel and what it means to be a disciple took place in family worship and in pastoral visits by preachers and class leaders.

Evangelism after COVID will still model this move from large and impersonal gatherings toward more intimate conversation but I think the emphasis may shift. Over the past fifty years, the emphasis in mainline Protestantism has been either to ignore evangelism entirely or to emphasize large group evangelism. Denominations that continue to denigrate evangelism will continue to decline in membership and become more and more irrelevant on the religious landscape. But movements that embrace the imperative to evangelize may shift in three key ways after COVID.

First, the place of initial encounter of the gospel will become more digital. The Holy Spirit is still alive and well, inviting people into a relationship with the living God. But most people will shift to an online exploration of Christianity instead of in large “Billy Graham Crusades” or even in visiting worship services. Churches and movements that thrive in the coming years will have vibrant online evangelism that exposes people to Christianity and sets the stage for further exploration.

Second, vibrant churches will offer a user-friendly process into a more personal conversation in small groups, both digital and face to face. Zoom has transformed Christian small groups forever. While many groups will go back to in-person small groups, my guess is vibrant churches, instead of just leaving an open chair at small groups for guests, will leave an open Zoom meeting for any who want to check out a group as well as for regular attenders who are either sick or traveling. Furthermore, many churches will keep some Zoom-only meetings for people who want to explore Christianity but who are apprehensive of the in-person setting.

Finally, vibrant churches will train their members to share their faith well. Instead of leaving personal evangelism to pastors, laity will claim their role as the church’s primary evangelists. They will be able to articulate what and why they believe and also be able to invite people into the life of faith. This most personal and important type of evangelism has and always will be personal, but it too may become more digital after COVID. But my guess is it will remain primarily a face-to-face activity.

In summary, evangelism will remain a process of engaging the Christian story in ever more personal settings, but digital formats and intentional training will become increasingly important to vibrant churches.

Embracing Evolution

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery story with one of my sons who was young at the time. As I was unloading the cart onto the belt, I looked over at my son who was staring at a magazine cover. I certainly don’t expect much in the way of morality from tabloids, but the one that my son was looking at had a particularly revealing image of a woman on the front. Trying to play it cool and not make the incident worse than it had to be, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Look at this toy over here, pretty neat, huh?” My son didn’t move. In fact, like a deer glued to the headlights of a car, he was motionless in front of the magazine rack.

“Is she a mommy?” he asked, looking at the busty figure.

Oh boy. How do I respond to that? I patted him on the back again and said a bit more forcefully, “Come on bud, let’s not look at that.” But he didn’t budge—totally frozen to the floor. This time I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him away and tried to explain how we shouldn’t look at that kind of thing. And as I was dragging him from the tabloid he just stared at the magazine and said, not in a voice of defiance, but of pitiful sadness, “But I want to look!”

While I was struck with how honest and open my child was being, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on under the surface. Where did that come from? Why was my son—who normally couldn’t sit still if his life had depended on it—standing there in a catatonic state of visual consumption? What I now know is that he was encountering something that all adult men intuitively come to experience; my son was seeing something that was visually stimulating coupled with a sensation of testosterone. This surge of hormone—which men experience at a rate tenfold that of women throughout their lives—pulled him toward the tabloid stand. And much like a game of tug of war at a family reunion, he was caught between a dad who wanted him to look away and a body that wanted to stay right where it was.

He was far too young, but if he only knew the destructive power that those images can bring and where his urges came from then he could more easily reorient his actions toward healthier—and holier—living. Is simply having knowledge about where we come from a perfect shield from sin? Of course not. But one first has to know where they come from before they can get to where they want to go.

Knowledge Is Power to Change

An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to becoming more whole—and holier—individuals.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a regular checkup and he noticed a weird blemish on my skin. He started to ask mild questions that became more and more serious as the conversation went on: “Have you noticed this spot on your back changing?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“How long has the spot been there?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” (I’m terrible at caring about my health). Then I noticed the questions began to change.

“Is there a history of cancer in your family?”

“Well, I guess so. My brother had melanoma on his leg.”

“Matt,” my doctor said, “Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?”

What I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I am painfully aware of now, is that my family’s medical history—not just mine, but my relatives’ and ancestors’—really mattered for assessing current problems in my health. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but this interaction with my doctor was a tangible example to me of how important is my past. When we come to have knowledge of our roots, we come to have knowledge of our current situation. When thinking of how our ancestry affects our lives today, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson—in his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delta, 2007)—observes:

Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes (tiny wormlike creatures) the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room. (70)

If we indeed come from a long history of ancestors—some of whom include animals that, right now, seem very distant to us—then just as a medical doctor might ask us if cancer runs in our family, we might ask questions about behavioral traits that run in our lineage. In a strange but understandable way, it actually matters what the nematode appetite was like. It matters that our hunter-gatherer male relatives had frequent sex and abandoned families in search of more mates. And it matters that our ancient female relatives decided to feed their offspring at the expense of other hungry children. Thus, a major step in developing a vibrant Christian life is recognizing that our biological and environmental proclivities that express themselves in negative and positive ways are steeped in our ancestral history.

Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Council Oak, 2007), has a helpful way of presenting why understanding our roots and teaching it to our children is of the utmost importance for Christian development. Dowd discusses his idea of mismatched instincts—the concept where one’s natural tendencies don’t align with modern life—coupled with what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—the notion of unnatural and exaggerated temptations (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose [Norton, 2010]). Together, this is what Dowd and Barrett are saying: Many of our instincts, from the desire to eat to the drive to have sex, were incredibly important to our ancestors—both human and pre-human. It’s because of those instincts that we are alive today. We should be thankful for them.

Sometimes I remind my classes, most of which are made up by nineteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, that they should be thankful that their grandparents got frisky forty years before they were born. When I make that pronouncement, their reaction is unanimous: “Ahh, Dr. Hill, we don’t want to think about that!” If I’m being honest, half of the reason I say it is to get that reaction. The other half is that I’m very serious. If our grandparents didn’t have a strong libido, we wouldn’t be alive today to be disgusted at the thought of their sex drive. Those drives and desires, from base urges to complex inclinations, are what fueled human development and allowed us to out-compete other organisms who didn’t possess the same instincts. In other words, the ancestors of those who didn’t want to eat all the time and have sex all the time are not here to tell their story. Humans, by cultivating some proclivities from natural selection, can develop a practice of restraint. Here I use food and sex as main examples because they are, quite obviously, two drives that are common and prominent among us. Indeed, there are a host of other instinctual drives we could also discuss, be it feelings of empathy, acts of altruism or self-preservation, and violence.

While it’s obvious that we have these instincts, sometimes they seem out of place given contemporary circumstances. For instance, child mortality rates have plummeted in just the last 150 years, making unnecessary, from a reproductive standpoint, the need to conceive as often as possible. Yet this doesn’t mean that the incessant drive to try to conceive a child has gone away. It’s like a retired race car driver who—still recalling the days when he needed a powerful engine for racing—drives around his block in his Bugatti. The desire to race is still part of his identity, but the need to race has long passed.

While not all drives that we have are antiquated like this—as some evolutionary drives are positive in nature, even today—the same logic applies to the consumption of food today. While famines and starvation are very real for many people in the Majority World—a concern we ought not overlook—most of the problem with contemporary hunger has to do with food distribution not food shortages. Humankind is producing an amount of food that far surpasses what history has seen before. A few hundred years ago, people had to be able to retain fat so that when winter or droughts came, they wouldn’t become emaciated or starve. Today we have immense storage structures and methods to protect against this threat. Before modern advances in agriculture, our food storage was put away in our stomachs, waists, and thighs. In other words, being able to get “fat for the winter” was a real thing. Now we just get fat.

It cannot be overstated that the instincts of Homo sapiens who were living ages ago were incredibly necessary in helping us survive to reproductive age. But now, in the twenty-first century, many of these instincts are mismatched, given advances in human technology, agriculture, and medicine. We simply don’t need to eat all the time or have sex all the time. As a result of such changes, there is now a need for temperate behavior—a behavior that, in an ironic way, does not come naturally to us.

Fries are the Pornography of Food

Many of our mismatched instincts, when combined with supernormal stimuli, are a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster—i.e., for unholiness. If you’re wondering what Barrett means by “supernormal stimuli,” let me explain it with an example.

Burger King french fries are the pornography of food. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. And our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance. So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is important—imprisoned by fatty foods. And Burger King french fries are our food-warden. I remember when my friend and I were sixteen years old and Burger King had just put out a new style of french fries. They figured out something about evolution and capitalized on it. Instead of having more potato as their new ingredient, they had more oil and fat—a nearly irresistible temptation to our sixteen-year-old instincts. They capitalized on the fact that we were hardwired to search after fat, salt, and sugar.

I say that french fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires. French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship. It shouldn’t surprise us then that both french fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t “natural.” They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to bicycles. The fast-food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible. Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the twenty-first century. Deirdre Barrett expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave. (Waistland: A (R)Evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis [Norton, 2007], 26)

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of mismatched instincts combine with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony, lust, self-indulgence, and other negative proclivities—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living. But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from, the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not prisoners to our instincts, no matter how strong negative instincts seem to be.

Embracing Evolution

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery story with one of my sons who was young at the time. As I was unloading the cart onto the belt, I looked over at my son who was staring at a magazine cover. I certainly don’t expect much in the way of morality from tabloids, but the one that my son was looking at had a particularly revealing image of a woman on the front. Trying to play it cool and not make the incident worse than it had to be, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Look at this toy over here, pretty neat, huh?” My son didn’t move. In fact, like a deer glued to the headlights of a car, he was motionless in front of the magazine rack.

“Is she a mommy?” he asked, looking at the busty figure.

Oh boy. How do I respond to that? I patted him on the back again and said a bit more forcefully, “Come on bud, let’s not look at that.” But he didn’t budge—totally frozen to the floor. This time I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him away and tried to explain how we shouldn’t look at that kind of thing. And as I was dragging him from the tabloid he just stared at the magazine and said, not in a voice of defiance, but of pitiful sadness, “But I want to look!”

While I was struck with how honest and open my child was being, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on under the surface. Where did that come from? Why was my son—who normally couldn’t sit still if his life had depended on it—standing there in a catatonic state of visual consumption? What I now know is that he was encountering something that all adult men intuitively come to experience; my son was seeing something that was visually stimulating coupled with a sensation of testosterone. This surge of hormone—which men experience at a rate tenfold that of women throughout their lives—pulled him toward the tabloid stand. And much like a game of tug of war at a family reunion, he was caught between a dad who wanted him to look away and a body that wanted to stay right where it was.

He was far too young, but if he only knew the destructive power that those images can bring and where his urges came from then he could more easily reorient his actions toward healthier—and holier—living. Is simply having knowledge about where we come from a perfect shield from sin? Of course not. But one first has to know where they come from before they can get to where they want to go.

Knowledge Is Power to Change

An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to becoming more whole—and holier—individuals.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a regular checkup and he noticed a weird blemish on my skin. He started to ask mild questions that became more and more serious as the conversation went on: “Have you noticed this spot on your back changing?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“How long has the spot been there?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” (I’m terrible at caring about my health). Then I noticed the questions began to change.

“Is there a history of cancer in your family?”

“Well, I guess so. My brother had melanoma on his leg.”

“Matt,” my doctor said, “Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?”

What I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I am painfully aware of now, is that my family’s medical history—not just mine, but my relatives’ and ancestors’—really mattered for assessing current problems in my health. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but this interaction with my doctor was a tangible example to me of how important is my past. When we come to have knowledge of our roots, we come to have knowledge of our current situation. When thinking of how our ancestry affects our lives today, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson—in his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delta, 2007)—observes:

Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes (tiny wormlike creatures) the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room. (70)

If we indeed come from a long history of ancestors—some of whom include animals that, right now, seem very distant to us—then just as a medical doctor might ask us if cancer runs in our family, we might ask questions about behavioral traits that run in our lineage. In a strange but understandable way, it actually matters what the nematode appetite was like. It matters that our hunter-gatherer male relatives had frequent sex and abandoned families in search of more mates. And it matters that our ancient female relatives decided to feed their offspring at the expense of other hungry children. Thus, a major step in developing a vibrant Christian life is recognizing that our biological and environmental proclivities that express themselves in negative and positive ways are steeped in our ancestral history.

Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Council Oak, 2007), has a helpful way of presenting why understanding our roots and teaching it to our children is of the utmost importance for Christian development. Dowd discusses his idea of mismatched instincts—the concept where one’s natural tendencies don’t align with modern life—coupled with what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—the notion of unnatural and exaggerated temptations (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose [Norton, 2010]). Together, this is what Dowd and Barrett are saying: Many of our instincts, from the desire to eat to the drive to have sex, were incredibly important to our ancestors—both human and pre-human. It’s because of those instincts that we are alive today. We should be thankful for them.

Sometimes I remind my classes, most of which are made up by nineteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, that they should be thankful that their grandparents got frisky forty years before they were born. When I make that pronouncement, their reaction is unanimous: “Ahh, Dr. Hill, we don’t want to think about that!” If I’m being honest, half of the reason I say it is to get that reaction. The other half is that I’m very serious. If our grandparents didn’t have a strong libido, we wouldn’t be alive today to be disgusted at the thought of their sex drive. Those drives and desires, from base urges to complex inclinations, are what fueled human development and allowed us to out-compete other organisms who didn’t possess the same instincts. In other words, the ancestors of those who didn’t want to eat all the time and have sex all the time are not here to tell their story. Humans, by cultivating some proclivities from natural selection, can develop a practice of restraint. Here I use food and sex as main examples because they are, quite obviously, two drives that are common and prominent among us. Indeed, there are a host of other instinctual drives we could also discuss, be it feelings of empathy, acts of altruism or self-preservation, and violence.

While it’s obvious that we have these instincts, sometimes they seem out of place given contemporary circumstances. For instance, child mortality rates have plummeted in just the last 150 years, making unnecessary, from a reproductive standpoint, the need to conceive as often as possible. Yet this doesn’t mean that the incessant drive to try to conceive a child has gone away. It’s like a retired race car driver who—still recalling the days when he needed a powerful engine for racing—drives around his block in his Bugatti. The desire to race is still part of his identity, but the need to race has long passed.

While not all drives that we have are antiquated like this—as some evolutionary drives are positive in nature, even today—the same logic applies to the consumption of food today. While famines and starvation are very real for many people in the Majority World—a concern we ought not overlook—most of the problem with contemporary hunger has to do with food distribution not food shortages. Humankind is producing an amount of food that far surpasses what history has seen before. A few hundred years ago, people had to be able to retain fat so that when winter or droughts came, they wouldn’t become emaciated or starve. Today we have immense storage structures and methods to protect against this threat. Before modern advances in agriculture, our food storage was put away in our stomachs, waists, and thighs. In other words, being able to get “fat for the winter” was a real thing. Now we just get fat.

It cannot be overstated that the instincts of Homo sapiens who were living ages ago were incredibly necessary in helping us survive to reproductive age. But now, in the twenty-first century, many of these instincts are mismatched, given advances in human technology, agriculture, and medicine. We simply don’t need to eat all the time or have sex all the time. As a result of such changes, there is now a need for temperate behavior—a behavior that, in an ironic way, does not come naturally to us.

Fries are the Pornography of Food

Many of our mismatched instincts, when combined with supernormal stimuli, are a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster—i.e., for unholiness. If you’re wondering what Barrett means by “supernormal stimuli,” let me explain it with an example.

Burger King french fries are the pornography of food. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. And our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance. So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is important—imprisoned by fatty foods. And Burger King french fries are our food-warden. I remember when my friend and I were sixteen years old and Burger King had just put out a new style of french fries. They figured out something about evolution and capitalized on it. Instead of having more potato as their new ingredient, they had more oil and fat—a nearly irresistible temptation to our sixteen-year-old instincts. They capitalized on the fact that we were hardwired to search after fat, salt, and sugar.

I say that french fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires. French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship. It shouldn’t surprise us then that both french fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t “natural.” They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to bicycles. The fast-food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible. Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the twenty-first century. Deirdre Barrett expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave. (Waistland: A (R)Evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis [Norton, 2007], 26)

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of mismatched instincts combine with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony, lust, self-indulgence, and other negative proclivities—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living. But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from, the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not prisoners to our instincts, no matter how strong negative instincts seem to be.

Embracing Evolution

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery story with one of my sons who was young at the time. As I was unloading the cart onto the belt, I looked over at my son who was staring at a magazine cover. I certainly don’t expect much in the way of morality from tabloids, but the one that my son was looking at had a particularly revealing image of a woman on the front. Trying to play it cool and not make the incident worse than it had to be, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Look at this toy over here, pretty neat, huh?” My son didn’t move. In fact, like a deer glued to the headlights of a car, he was motionless in front of the magazine rack.

“Is she a mommy?” he asked, looking at the busty figure.

Oh boy. How do I respond to that? I patted him on the back again and said a bit more forcefully, “Come on bud, let’s not look at that.” But he didn’t budge—totally frozen to the floor. This time I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him away and tried to explain how we shouldn’t look at that kind of thing. And as I was dragging him from the tabloid he just stared at the magazine and said, not in a voice of defiance, but of pitiful sadness, “But I want to look!”

While I was struck with how honest and open my child was being, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on under the surface. Where did that come from? Why was my son—who normally couldn’t sit still if his life had depended on it—standing there in a catatonic state of visual consumption? What I now know is that he was encountering something that all adult men intuitively come to experience; my son was seeing something that was visually stimulating coupled with a sensation of testosterone. This surge of hormone—which men experience at a rate tenfold that of women throughout their lives—pulled him toward the tabloid stand. And much like a game of tug of war at a family reunion, he was caught between a dad who wanted him to look away and a body that wanted to stay right where it was.

He was far too young, but if he only knew the destructive power that those images can bring and where his urges came from then he could more easily reorient his actions toward healthier—and holier—living. Is simply having knowledge about where we come from a perfect shield from sin? Of course not. But one first has to know where they come from before they can get to where they want to go.

Knowledge Is Power to Change

An essential benefit of adopting an integrative understanding of evolutionary theory and our Christian faith is that we become better able to recognize who we are and why we tend to have certain behaviors. And this knowledge of our biological and environmental pasts may actually lead us to becoming more whole—and holier—individuals.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a regular checkup and he noticed a weird blemish on my skin. He started to ask mild questions that became more and more serious as the conversation went on: “Have you noticed this spot on your back changing?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“How long has the spot been there?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” (I’m terrible at caring about my health). Then I noticed the questions began to change.

“Is there a history of cancer in your family?”

“Well, I guess so. My brother had melanoma on his leg.”

“Matt,” my doctor said, “Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?”

What I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I am painfully aware of now, is that my family’s medical history—not just mine, but my relatives’ and ancestors’—really mattered for assessing current problems in my health. Thankfully, everything worked out fine, but this interaction with my doctor was a tangible example to me of how important is my past. When we come to have knowledge of our roots, we come to have knowledge of our current situation. When thinking of how our ancestry affects our lives today, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson—in his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives (Delta, 2007)—observes:

Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes (tiny wormlike creatures) the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room. (70)

If we indeed come from a long history of ancestors—some of whom include animals that, right now, seem very distant to us—then just as a medical doctor might ask us if cancer runs in our family, we might ask questions about behavioral traits that run in our lineage. In a strange but understandable way, it actually matters what the nematode appetite was like. It matters that our hunter-gatherer male relatives had frequent sex and abandoned families in search of more mates. And it matters that our ancient female relatives decided to feed their offspring at the expense of other hungry children. Thus, a major step in developing a vibrant Christian life is recognizing that our biological and environmental proclivities that express themselves in negative and positive ways are steeped in our ancestral history.

Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Council Oak, 2007), has a helpful way of presenting why understanding our roots and teaching it to our children is of the utmost importance for Christian development. Dowd discusses his idea of mismatched instincts—the concept where one’s natural tendencies don’t align with modern life—coupled with what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—the notion of unnatural and exaggerated temptations (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose [Norton, 2010]). Together, this is what Dowd and Barrett are saying: Many of our instincts, from the desire to eat to the drive to have sex, were incredibly important to our ancestors—both human and pre-human. It’s because of those instincts that we are alive today. We should be thankful for them.

Sometimes I remind my classes, most of which are made up by nineteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, that they should be thankful that their grandparents got frisky forty years before they were born. When I make that pronouncement, their reaction is unanimous: “Ahh, Dr. Hill, we don’t want to think about that!” If I’m being honest, half of the reason I say it is to get that reaction. The other half is that I’m very serious. If our grandparents didn’t have a strong libido, we wouldn’t be alive today to be disgusted at the thought of their sex drive. Those drives and desires, from base urges to complex inclinations, are what fueled human development and allowed us to out-compete other organisms who didn’t possess the same instincts. In other words, the ancestors of those who didn’t want to eat all the time and have sex all the time are not here to tell their story. Humans, by cultivating some proclivities from natural selection, can develop a practice of restraint. Here I use food and sex as main examples because they are, quite obviously, two drives that are common and prominent among us. Indeed, there are a host of other instinctual drives we could also discuss, be it feelings of empathy, acts of altruism or self-preservation, and violence.

While it’s obvious that we have these instincts, sometimes they seem out of place given contemporary circumstances. For instance, child mortality rates have plummeted in just the last 150 years, making unnecessary, from a reproductive standpoint, the need to conceive as often as possible. Yet this doesn’t mean that the incessant drive to try to conceive a child has gone away. It’s like a retired race car driver who—still recalling the days when he needed a powerful engine for racing—drives around his block in his Bugatti. The desire to race is still part of his identity, but the need to race has long passed.

While not all drives that we have are antiquated like this—as some evolutionary drives are positive in nature, even today—the same logic applies to the consumption of food today. While famines and starvation are very real for many people in the Majority World—a concern we ought not overlook—most of the problem with contemporary hunger has to do with food distribution not food shortages. Humankind is producing an amount of food that far surpasses what history has seen before. A few hundred years ago, people had to be able to retain fat so that when winter or droughts came, they wouldn’t become emaciated or starve. Today we have immense storage structures and methods to protect against this threat. Before modern advances in agriculture, our food storage was put away in our stomachs, waists, and thighs. In other words, being able to get “fat for the winter” was a real thing. Now we just get fat.

It cannot be overstated that the instincts of Homo sapiens who were living ages ago were incredibly necessary in helping us survive to reproductive age. But now, in the twenty-first century, many of these instincts are mismatched, given advances in human technology, agriculture, and medicine. We simply don’t need to eat all the time or have sex all the time. As a result of such changes, there is now a need for temperate behavior—a behavior that, in an ironic way, does not come naturally to us.

Fries are the Pornography of Food

Many of our mismatched instincts, when combined with supernormal stimuli, are a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster—i.e., for unholiness. If you’re wondering what Barrett means by “supernormal stimuli,” let me explain it with an example.

Burger King french fries are the pornography of food. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. And our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance. So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is important—imprisoned by fatty foods. And Burger King french fries are our food-warden. I remember when my friend and I were sixteen years old and Burger King had just put out a new style of french fries. They figured out something about evolution and capitalized on it. Instead of having more potato as their new ingredient, they had more oil and fat—a nearly irresistible temptation to our sixteen-year-old instincts. They capitalized on the fact that we were hardwired to search after fat, salt, and sugar.

I say that french fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires. French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship. It shouldn’t surprise us then that both french fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t “natural.” They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to bicycles. The fast-food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible. Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the twenty-first century. Deirdre Barrett expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave. (Waistland: A (R)Evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis [Norton, 2007], 26)

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of mismatched instincts combine with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony, lust, self-indulgence, and other negative proclivities—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living. But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from, the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not prisoners to our instincts, no matter how strong negative instincts seem to be.

Remembering Geoffrey Wainwright

One of the truly poignant dimensions of the global pandemic has been its effect on how we accompany, mourn, and remember the dead. Often we cannot be present with those who are dying, especially if they are in a hospital or other care facility. Services are, in most cases, strictly limited to small gatherings. At each of the funerals I have led in the last year, someone has expressed hope for a future, less restricted, memorial service, but I wonder how many of these hopes will be realized. Even before the pandemic, at least in my experience, the church’s commitment to faithful commemoration of the saints triumphant was waning. Attendance at services was inconsistent, many showed support for the departed’s family by attending viewings instead of funerals, and it was even difficult to get clergy to attend services for their colleagues. I hope our corporate sense of loss right now may lead to some changes later on, but I worry many of those who die will simply slip through the cracks of our memory.

Out of this concern, I offer what follows in memory of Geoffrey Wainwright, professor of systematic theology at Duke Divinity School for many years, following stints in Cameroon, England, and New York City. He died just a few days after the initial lockdown in March 2020. Though I was fortunate enough to have taken two of his courses, Introduction to Christian Theology (the core theology course at Duke) and Theology and Language (a seminar in one of his favorite topics), I am among the least and last of his students. Others, including several John Wesley fellows, could share more personal stories of Dr. Wainwright. Still, I can say that I took his classes at exactly the right moment, and his teaching was decisive in my own journey to becoming a theologian.

Dr. Wainwright’s work is of such importance that all serious students in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition should have at least some passing awareness of it. He wrote prolifically in the intersection of liturgical and systematic theology, ecumenism, and Wesleyan studies. His magnum opus, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford University Press), is the place to begin. Published in 1980, when he was still fairly young (at the time, Wolfhart Pannenberg said to him something like, “Well, you’ve got your systematics done, now what will you do?”), the book is a systematic theology whose “system” is a heady mix of practices of Christian worship and ecumenical theology. Doxology is one of the great systematic treatises in the history of Methodism, with its deliberate treatment of worship, doctrine, and life as fundamentally inseparable. (It is also the only systematic theology I have ever seen recommended by church musicians as essential reading.)

Dr. Wainwright’s approach to the introductory Christian theology course at Duke did not mirror the unfolding of Doxology. He approached the class according to the outline of the Nicene Creed, more or less, and this meant that his lectures were not merely reproductions of chapters in Doxology, though there was a lot of overlap between the two. It was, perhaps, a subtle underscoring of his belief that Christian systematic theology must always remain an open system, at least until the eschaton.

Famously, Dr. Wainwright was one of the great ecumenists of the twentieth century. He worked tirelessly for decades on the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission (Wainwright’s Methodists in Dialog [Kingswood, 1995] offers a solid introduction to a lot of this work). The real gem in his work on ecumenism is the Commission’s Lima document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (WCC, 1982), a document that helped seal significant advances in ecumenical relations—from the previously widespread practice of rebaptizing to the mutual recognition of baptisms among Christian traditions, and from sectarian practices of worship to a shared set of assumptions about its basic form and purpose. Dr. Wainwright was one of the principal authors and final editor of this document.

For all this, Dr. Wainwright never lost his own sense of place. Essays on John Wesley and the Trinity head off notions that Wesley was a doctrinal pragmatist or latitudinarian. A lifelong (and ordained) member of the British Methodist Church, he peppered lectures with Charles Wesley’s hymns, which he adored. His 2012 retirement lecture had more singing than speaking, accompanied by the great liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield Tucker.

Legacies have the potential to outlast memories, and this is not in itself a terrible loss. As the pastor of three congregations that are each well over one hundred fifty years old, I can be grateful for the unnamed saints of ages past without needing to know what each and every one of them did (or did not do) for Christ. Still, I hope that we don’t rush too quickly to that reassurance and that we dedicate more of this upcoming year to remembering those who have gone before us, and not just giving thanks for their legacies.

Remembering Geoffrey Wainwright

One of the truly poignant dimensions of the global pandemic has been its effect on how we accompany, mourn, and remember the dead. Often we cannot be present with those who are dying, especially if they are in a hospital or other care facility. Services are, in most cases, strictly limited to small gatherings. At each of the funerals I have led in the last year, someone has expressed hope for a future, less restricted, memorial service, but I wonder how many of these hopes will be realized. Even before the pandemic, at least in my experience, the church’s commitment to faithful commemoration of the saints triumphant was waning. Attendance at services was inconsistent, many showed support for the departed’s family by attending viewings instead of funerals, and it was even difficult to get clergy to attend services for their colleagues. I hope our corporate sense of loss right now may lead to some changes later on, but I worry many of those who die will simply slip through the cracks of our memory.

Out of this concern, I offer what follows in memory of Geoffrey Wainwright, professor of systematic theology at Duke Divinity School for many years, following stints in Cameroon, England, and New York City. He died just a few days after the initial lockdown in March 2020. Though I was fortunate enough to have taken two of his courses, Introduction to Christian Theology (the core theology course at Duke) and Theology and Language (a seminar in one of his favorite topics), I am among the least and last of his students. Others, including several John Wesley fellows, could share more personal stories of Dr. Wainwright. Still, I can say that I took his classes at exactly the right moment, and his teaching was decisive in my own journey to becoming a theologian.

Dr. Wainwright’s work is of such importance that all serious students in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition should have at least some passing awareness of it. He wrote prolifically in the intersection of liturgical and systematic theology, ecumenism, and Wesleyan studies. His magnum opus, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford University Press), is the place to begin. Published in 1980, when he was still fairly young (at the time, Wolfhart Pannenberg said to him something like, “Well, you’ve got your systematics done, now what will you do?”), the book is a systematic theology whose “system” is a heady mix of practices of Christian worship and ecumenical theology. Doxology is one of the great systematic treatises in the history of Methodism, with its deliberate treatment of worship, doctrine, and life as fundamentally inseparable. (It is also the only systematic theology I have ever seen recommended by church musicians as essential reading.)

Dr. Wainwright’s approach to the introductory Christian theology course at Duke did not mirror the unfolding of Doxology. He approached the class according to the outline of the Nicene Creed, more or less, and this meant that his lectures were not merely reproductions of chapters in Doxology, though there was a lot of overlap between the two. It was, perhaps, a subtle underscoring of his belief that Christian systematic theology must always remain an open system, at least until the eschaton.

Famously, Dr. Wainwright was one of the great ecumenists of the twentieth century. He worked tirelessly for decades on the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission (Wainwright’s Methodists in Dialog [Kingswood, 1995] offers a solid introduction to a lot of this work). The real gem in his work on ecumenism is the Commission’s Lima document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (WCC, 1982), a document that helped seal significant advances in ecumenical relations—from the previously widespread practice of rebaptizing to the mutual recognition of baptisms among Christian traditions, and from sectarian practices of worship to a shared set of assumptions about its basic form and purpose. Dr. Wainwright was one of the principal authors and final editor of this document.

For all this, Dr. Wainwright never lost his own sense of place. Essays on John Wesley and the Trinity head off notions that Wesley was a doctrinal pragmatist or latitudinarian. A lifelong (and ordained) member of the British Methodist Church, he peppered lectures with Charles Wesley’s hymns, which he adored. His 2012 retirement lecture had more singing than speaking, accompanied by the great liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield Tucker.

Legacies have the potential to outlast memories, and this is not in itself a terrible loss. As the pastor of three congregations that are each well over one hundred fifty years old, I can be grateful for the unnamed saints of ages past without needing to know what each and every one of them did (or did not do) for Christ. Still, I hope that we don’t rush too quickly to that reassurance and that we dedicate more of this upcoming year to remembering those who have gone before us, and not just giving thanks for their legacies.

What Are They Saying about the Study of the Gospels?

Over the past several years biblical scholarship has given vigorous attention to the character of our Gospels and to the most appropriate ways to read and understand them. And these recent years have witnessed significant developments in the study of the Gospels.

Developments in the recent study of the Gospels have pertained to two broad areas: the nature of the Gospels and the methods or approaches that are most viable for the interpretation of the Gospels. The issue of the nature of the Gospels has centered on their genre, or literary form, which has to do with the combination of form and content that would lead the intended reader to classify the book as belonging to a certain familiar category of works (say, novel or history) and therefore interpret the book by employing reading strategies that are appropriate to that genre. In the decades preceding the 1970s the importance of considering the genre of our Gospels had been largely set aside because of the view that the Gospels were either nothing more than primitive folk-tradition and hence were essentially sub-literary and insufficiently sophisticated even to qualify as having a genre, or that the genre of the Gospels was utterly unique to the Gospels themselves (sui generis) and therefore any attempt to read the Gospels according to genres familiar to first-century readers was wrongheaded.

The Nature of the Gospels

But the 1980s witnessed a growing appreciation of the literary artistry of our Gospels and an acknowledgment that connections with recognized genres was essential for readers to make sense of any document. These considerations led to a renewed interest in the genre of the Gospels that culminated in the appearance in 1992 of the groundbreaking work by Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, which has led to a general consensus today that our Gospels are in the form of ancient biography and that we should read them according to the expectations of that genre. (The Gospel of Luke may form a partial exception. Because of the organic connection between Luke and Acts, the latter apparently representing ancient historiography, some scholars consider the Gospel of Luke also to be a form of ancient history; yet the most recent scholarship suggests that the distinction between biography and history was somewhat fluid in ancient times and thus Luke can be read in terms of the same biographical features that we find in the other Gospels.)

In contrast to modern biographies, ancient biographies had no interest in the personal background of their subject or influences on their subject, nor in the psychological, moral, or spiritual development of the subject of the biography; indeed, ancient biographies gave little or no attention to development at all but rather presented the subject as constant throughout. In addition, unlike modern ones, ancient biographers found no reason necessarily to discuss every period of the subject’s life, including childhood and adolescence, but typically did attend to the end of their life, their death, and the consequences of their death.

Moreover, ancient biographies were generally read orally, at one sitting from beginning to end, at public gatherings. Consequently, today’s Gospel interpreters are more insistent than ever that we should give attention to the total impact of the whole Gospel, and that we must interpret individual passages by considering carefully the role of these passages within the program of the entire Gospel. The observation that ancient biographies were read out load has encouraged scholars to attend to matters of orality/aurality and to explore how such matters may contribute to the interpretation of Gospel passages and challenge long-held assumptions regarding the nature of the Gospels (and the Gospel tradition that lies behind our final Gospels) as well as the methods of Gospel interpretation. For example, it is sometimes claimed that the sounds or patterns of sounds persons experience as they hear the Gospel read may in some instances be as significant for constructing meaning as the words themselves. Yet we must acknowledge that we do not have complete confidence regarding the pronunciation of ancient koine Greek.

The recognition that ancient biographies were read at public events has contributed to the emergence of “performance criticism,” which insists that such readings entailed aspects that we associate with the theater or play and explores how this medium of Gospel reception impacted ancient audiences and indeed may provide modern audiences with a more robust experience of the Gospels. In fact, some scholars urge contemporary public performances of our Gospels. Yet we should note that this would involve ideally the performance of the koine Greek text to native Greek-speakers, which cannot be replicated in the case of modern audiences. And, with regard to ancient audiences, our Gospels offer few clues or indications about performance mechanisms (tone, gestures, etc.) that may have been operative in the original tellings.

In addition, insofar as ancient biographies centered virtually exclusively on the subject of the biography recent scholarship has come to a greater recognition of the Christological focus of our Gospels. It may seem obvious that our Gospels are primarily about Jesus and should therefore be studied accordingly. But earlier scholarship (especially in the twentieth century) often shifted attention away from Jesus himself to various abstract theological ideas, such as ecclesiology or eschatology. These are worthy areas of investigation, but scholars increasingly believe, on the basis of insights from the ancient biographical character of the Gospels, that such investigations should flow from the Gospels’ presentations of Jesus.

Then, too, recent scholarship has manifested some significant tendency to move away from an earlier fixation on the complexion and situation of the (church) community to which a Gospel was presumably addressed in favor of an emphasis on the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus. This backing away from a focus on Gospel “communities” has received impetus from the recognition that ancient biographies were typically intended for a general versus specific audience. Thus, Richard Bauckham and the others who contributed to the book that Bauckham edited, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, have rejected the long-held assumption that each of our Gospels was written for a specific church in a limited geographical area in favor of the view that each of our Gospels was intended to be read by all Christians. Not all recent scholarship has accepted this view, noting that the Gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) seem at points to contain implicit specific pastoral concerns. I myself have drawn attention to the fact that the relationship between the Gospel of John and the Johannine Epistles suggests that John’s Gospel, at least, appears to have been directed to a specific limited audience. Nevertheless, we observe that there is less attention to the reconstruction of these communities and to the significance of such reconstruction for the interpretation of the Gospels than in the past and an openness to the possibility that at least some of our Gospels were written for the entire Christian church.

Interpreting the Gospels

Our discussion thus far has focused on recent investigation into the character of our Gospels. In what follows we will examine briefly how recent scholarship has addressed the matter of method, or approach, to gospel interpretation. In sum, we can say that the study of the Gospels has moved from dependence on a single, dominant, author-centered method (redaction criticism) to a variety of approaches that, for the most part, give greater attention to the role of the reader, although we will note one newer approach that enriches the exploration of historical aspects that belong to the more traditional methods.

Redaction criticism dominated Gospel interpretation from the end of the Second World War into the 1980s. As its name suggests, redaction criticism discerns the meaning of Gospel material by analyzing the ways our evangelists redacted, or edited, the traditions at their disposal so as to communicate their theology with a view to addressing perceived deficiencies or problems among their “communities.” Conversely, redaction critics used these editorial alterations by the evangelist to reconstruct the community of each evangelist.

For their analysis, redaction critics generally assumed the two-source hypothesis of Synoptic Gospel relationships, namely, that Matthew and Luke used and edited two sources: the Gospel of Mark (thus deemed the earliest Gospel) and a hypothetical sayings-source called “Q.” They considered the Gospel of John to be either entirely distinct from the synoptic Gospels, in which case they attempted to analyze John’s redaction of earlier traditions which he alone possessed as these traditions were reconstructed by critical scholars, or a highly theologized revision (redaction) of one or more of the synoptics.

The earliest redaction critics attended almost exclusively to the changes, omissions, or additions that the evangelists made to received tradition, assuming that what the evangelists incorporated untouched from earlier tradition could tell us little about their distinctive theologies. As time went on, though, redaction critics came to realize that the teaching of the evangelists was reflected as much in what they incorporated untouched as in the changes they introduced, which led these scholars to infer the message of an evangelist on the basis of how the evangelist both incorporated and altered earlier tradition to compose his Gospel in its final form.

This kind of redaction criticism continues to be found in many scholarly works and commentaries on the Gospels. Yet it has its problems. Not only does the emphasis on specific gospel communities contradict insights from the ancient biographical genre of our Gospels, as we noted above, but also the two-source hypothesis, on which most redaction criticism is dependent, has been challenged by several scholars, some of whom have put forward alternative source theories. While most continue to espouse the two-source hypothesis, it is not held with the same measure of confidence it once enjoyed. But, most importantly, it is questionable to assume that the message of a Gospel is coterminous with the intention of the author (which is itself elusive, since we cannot hope infallibly to get into the heads of people who lived 2000 years ago). Should not the message of the Gospel be discerned by examining the Gospel itself?

Since the 1980s a significant number of scholars, employing insights from the study of literature in general, have insisted that we must grasp the meaning of a Gospel by analyzing the literary dynamics of the Gospel itself. These narrative critics draw heavily on secular narratologists, such as Seymour Chatman, who insists that every narrative has both “story” (what is told) and “discourse” (how it is told). The story includes events, characters, settings, and plot; whereas the discourse consists of the implied author (the author as he presents himself in the narrative itself), the implied reader (the reader that the narrative envisages, that we can infer from the text), and point of view (the relationship between the perspective of the implied author and that of the characters within the narrative). In contrast to redaction criticism, then, narrative criticism is a text-centered rather than an author-centered approach.

Although the earliest narrative critics tended to completely bracket out matters of historical background and to speak of the “narrative world” of the text as a self-contained reality, more recently narrative critics have recognized the importance of historical setting (including sociological and socio-rhetorical realities). Many have also considered more seriously the place of the actual reader in the construal of sense.

This concern for the role of actual readers has led to the emergence of reader-response criticism of the Gospels. Among reader-response critics we find a continuum between “formalists,” who focus on the ways elements in the text direct readers to develop meaning, and “contextualists,” who emphasize the role that the contexts of real readers play in drawing sense from the text. Those reader-response critics who stand on the formalist side have much in common with narrative critics and may be in some instances practically indistinguishable from them. Contextualists, though, give much greater importance to the perspective or concerns of actual readers in the interpretation of Gospel texts.

This contextualist reading has led to the emergence of what Raymond Brown called “advocacy criticisms,” which emphasize the cultural or political context of contemporary readers. Advocacy critics examine Gospel texts from the perspective of feminism, or disability concerns, or postcolonialism (which often employs insights from “Empire studies,” drawing a connection between the dominance of the Roman Empire in the Gospels and modern expressions of political/social power) in order to identify ways texts are either sympathetic or resistant to certain contemporary views on these social issues.

These critics are also concerned to show how the social or political biases of interpreters have influenced their construal of Gospel texts. Advocacy critics often operate with an implicit canon outside the canon in that they bring modern positions of advocacy to the text so as to determine whether the text should be affirmed (insofar as it agrees with the advocacy position of the reader) or resisted in that it is viewed as a text of oppression (insofar as it disagrees with the contemporary advocacy position). This kind of reading can have value in that it may draw our attention to a Gospel’s underlying assumptions regarding power or politics or gender that otherwise we might miss.

Along with these approaches that emphasize the role of readers we note the significance of social-scientific criticism, which employs insights from sociological and cultural/anthropological studies to illumine historical issues associated with the Gospels. Social-scientific criticism has been used to reconstruct the social character of the Gospel communities or to illumine events, persons or settings referenced in the Gospels. Social-scientific criticism is helpful in that it addresses an aspect of historical background that was long neglected in Gospel study. Yet it has limitations. For example, sometimes social theory rather than the text itself in its literary context drives interpretation. Still, if social-scientific criticism is used judiciously it can help to discover additional potential meaning and significance.

A welcome characteristic of most recent Gospel scholarship is a tendency toward integration. Scholars typically have a methodological “target,” but employ insights from various approaches so as to provide richness, depth, and greater plausibility to their interpretations.

What Are They Saying about the Study of the Gospels?

Over the past several years biblical scholarship has given vigorous attention to the character of our Gospels and to the most appropriate ways to read and understand them. And these recent years have witnessed significant developments in the study of the Gospels.

Developments in the recent study of the Gospels have pertained to two broad areas: the nature of the Gospels and the methods or approaches that are most viable for the interpretation of the Gospels. The issue of the nature of the Gospels has centered on their genre, or literary form, which has to do with the combination of form and content that would lead the intended reader to classify the book as belonging to a certain familiar category of works (say, novel or history) and therefore interpret the book by employing reading strategies that are appropriate to that genre. In the decades preceding the 1970s the importance of considering the genre of our Gospels had been largely set aside because of the view that the Gospels were either nothing more than primitive folk-tradition and hence were essentially sub-literary and insufficiently sophisticated even to qualify as having a genre, or that the genre of the Gospels was utterly unique to the Gospels themselves (sui generis) and therefore any attempt to read the Gospels according to genres familiar to first-century readers was wrongheaded.

The Nature of the Gospels

But the 1980s witnessed a growing appreciation of the literary artistry of our Gospels and an acknowledgment that connections with recognized genres was essential for readers to make sense of any document. These considerations led to a renewed interest in the genre of the Gospels that culminated in the appearance in 1992 of the groundbreaking work by Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, which has led to a general consensus today that our Gospels are in the form of ancient biography and that we should read them according to the expectations of that genre. (The Gospel of Luke may form a partial exception. Because of the organic connection between Luke and Acts, the latter apparently representing ancient historiography, some scholars consider the Gospel of Luke also to be a form of ancient history; yet the most recent scholarship suggests that the distinction between biography and history was somewhat fluid in ancient times and thus Luke can be read in terms of the same biographical features that we find in the other Gospels.)

In contrast to modern biographies, ancient biographies had no interest in the personal background of their subject or influences on their subject, nor in the psychological, moral, or spiritual development of the subject of the biography; indeed, ancient biographies gave little or no attention to development at all but rather presented the subject as constant throughout. In addition, unlike modern ones, ancient biographers found no reason necessarily to discuss every period of the subject’s life, including childhood and adolescence, but typically did attend to the end of their life, their death, and the consequences of their death.

Moreover, ancient biographies were generally read orally, at one sitting from beginning to end, at public gatherings. Consequently, today’s Gospel interpreters are more insistent than ever that we should give attention to the total impact of the whole Gospel, and that we must interpret individual passages by considering carefully the role of these passages within the program of the entire Gospel. The observation that ancient biographies were read out load has encouraged scholars to attend to matters of orality/aurality and to explore how such matters may contribute to the interpretation of Gospel passages and challenge long-held assumptions regarding the nature of the Gospels (and the Gospel tradition that lies behind our final Gospels) as well as the methods of Gospel interpretation. For example, it is sometimes claimed that the sounds or patterns of sounds persons experience as they hear the Gospel read may in some instances be as significant for constructing meaning as the words themselves. Yet we must acknowledge that we do not have complete confidence regarding the pronunciation of ancient koine Greek.

The recognition that ancient biographies were read at public events has contributed to the emergence of “performance criticism,” which insists that such readings entailed aspects that we associate with the theater or play and explores how this medium of Gospel reception impacted ancient audiences and indeed may provide modern audiences with a more robust experience of the Gospels. In fact, some scholars urge contemporary public performances of our Gospels. Yet we should note that this would involve ideally the performance of the koine Greek text to native Greek-speakers, which cannot be replicated in the case of modern audiences. And, with regard to ancient audiences, our Gospels offer few clues or indications about performance mechanisms (tone, gestures, etc.) that may have been operative in the original tellings.

In addition, insofar as ancient biographies centered virtually exclusively on the subject of the biography recent scholarship has come to a greater recognition of the Christological focus of our Gospels. It may seem obvious that our Gospels are primarily about Jesus and should therefore be studied accordingly. But earlier scholarship (especially in the twentieth century) often shifted attention away from Jesus himself to various abstract theological ideas, such as ecclesiology or eschatology. These are worthy areas of investigation, but scholars increasingly believe, on the basis of insights from the ancient biographical character of the Gospels, that such investigations should flow from the Gospels’ presentations of Jesus.

Then, too, recent scholarship has manifested some significant tendency to move away from an earlier fixation on the complexion and situation of the (church) community to which a Gospel was presumably addressed in favor of an emphasis on the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus. This backing away from a focus on Gospel “communities” has received impetus from the recognition that ancient biographies were typically intended for a general versus specific audience. Thus, Richard Bauckham and the others who contributed to the book that Bauckham edited, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, have rejected the long-held assumption that each of our Gospels was written for a specific church in a limited geographical area in favor of the view that each of our Gospels was intended to be read by all Christians. Not all recent scholarship has accepted this view, noting that the Gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) seem at points to contain implicit specific pastoral concerns. I myself have drawn attention to the fact that the relationship between the Gospel of John and the Johannine Epistles suggests that John’s Gospel, at least, appears to have been directed to a specific limited audience. Nevertheless, we observe that there is less attention to the reconstruction of these communities and to the significance of such reconstruction for the interpretation of the Gospels than in the past and an openness to the possibility that at least some of our Gospels were written for the entire Christian church.

Interpreting the Gospels

Our discussion thus far has focused on recent investigation into the character of our Gospels. In what follows we will examine briefly how recent scholarship has addressed the matter of method, or approach, to gospel interpretation. In sum, we can say that the study of the Gospels has moved from dependence on a single, dominant, author-centered method (redaction criticism) to a variety of approaches that, for the most part, give greater attention to the role of the reader, although we will note one newer approach that enriches the exploration of historical aspects that belong to the more traditional methods.

Redaction criticism dominated Gospel interpretation from the end of the Second World War into the 1980s. As its name suggests, redaction criticism discerns the meaning of Gospel material by analyzing the ways our evangelists redacted, or edited, the traditions at their disposal so as to communicate their theology with a view to addressing perceived deficiencies or problems among their “communities.” Conversely, redaction critics used these editorial alterations by the evangelist to reconstruct the community of each evangelist.

For their analysis, redaction critics generally assumed the two-source hypothesis of Synoptic Gospel relationships, namely, that Matthew and Luke used and edited two sources: the Gospel of Mark (thus deemed the earliest Gospel) and a hypothetical sayings-source called “Q.” They considered the Gospel of John to be either entirely distinct from the synoptic Gospels, in which case they attempted to analyze John’s redaction of earlier traditions which he alone possessed as these traditions were reconstructed by critical scholars, or a highly theologized revision (redaction) of one or more of the synoptics.

The earliest redaction critics attended almost exclusively to the changes, omissions, or additions that the evangelists made to received tradition, assuming that what the evangelists incorporated untouched from earlier tradition could tell us little about their distinctive theologies. As time went on, though, redaction critics came to realize that the teaching of the evangelists was reflected as much in what they incorporated untouched as in the changes they introduced, which led these scholars to infer the message of an evangelist on the basis of how the evangelist both incorporated and altered earlier tradition to compose his Gospel in its final form.

This kind of redaction criticism continues to be found in many scholarly works and commentaries on the Gospels. Yet it has its problems. Not only does the emphasis on specific gospel communities contradict insights from the ancient biographical genre of our Gospels, as we noted above, but also the two-source hypothesis, on which most redaction criticism is dependent, has been challenged by several scholars, some of whom have put forward alternative source theories. While most continue to espouse the two-source hypothesis, it is not held with the same measure of confidence it once enjoyed. But, most importantly, it is questionable to assume that the message of a Gospel is coterminous with the intention of the author (which is itself elusive, since we cannot hope infallibly to get into the heads of people who lived 2000 years ago). Should not the message of the Gospel be discerned by examining the Gospel itself?

Since the 1980s a significant number of scholars, employing insights from the study of literature in general, have insisted that we must grasp the meaning of a Gospel by analyzing the literary dynamics of the Gospel itself. These narrative critics draw heavily on secular narratologists, such as Seymour Chatman, who insists that every narrative has both “story” (what is told) and “discourse” (how it is told). The story includes events, characters, settings, and plot; whereas the discourse consists of the implied author (the author as he presents himself in the narrative itself), the implied reader (the reader that the narrative envisages, that we can infer from the text), and point of view (the relationship between the perspective of the implied author and that of the characters within the narrative). In contrast to redaction criticism, then, narrative criticism is a text-centered rather than an author-centered approach.

Although the earliest narrative critics tended to completely bracket out matters of historical background and to speak of the “narrative world” of the text as a self-contained reality, more recently narrative critics have recognized the importance of historical setting (including sociological and socio-rhetorical realities). Many have also considered more seriously the place of the actual reader in the construal of sense.

This concern for the role of actual readers has led to the emergence of reader-response criticism of the Gospels. Among reader-response critics we find a continuum between “formalists,” who focus on the ways elements in the text direct readers to develop meaning, and “contextualists,” who emphasize the role that the contexts of real readers play in drawing sense from the text. Those reader-response critics who stand on the formalist side have much in common with narrative critics and may be in some instances practically indistinguishable from them. Contextualists, though, give much greater importance to the perspective or concerns of actual readers in the interpretation of Gospel texts.

This contextualist reading has led to the emergence of what Raymond Brown called “advocacy criticisms,” which emphasize the cultural or political context of contemporary readers. Advocacy critics examine Gospel texts from the perspective of feminism, or disability concerns, or postcolonialism (which often employs insights from “Empire studies,” drawing a connection between the dominance of the Roman Empire in the Gospels and modern expressions of political/social power) in order to identify ways texts are either sympathetic or resistant to certain contemporary views on these social issues.

These critics are also concerned to show how the social or political biases of interpreters have influenced their construal of Gospel texts. Advocacy critics often operate with an implicit canon outside the canon in that they bring modern positions of advocacy to the text so as to determine whether the text should be affirmed (insofar as it agrees with the advocacy position of the reader) or resisted in that it is viewed as a text of oppression (insofar as it disagrees with the contemporary advocacy position). This kind of reading can have value in that it may draw our attention to a Gospel’s underlying assumptions regarding power or politics or gender that otherwise we might miss.

Along with these approaches that emphasize the role of readers we note the significance of social-scientific criticism, which employs insights from sociological and cultural/anthropological studies to illumine historical issues associated with the Gospels. Social-scientific criticism has been used to reconstruct the social character of the Gospel communities or to illumine events, persons or settings referenced in the Gospels. Social-scientific criticism is helpful in that it addresses an aspect of historical background that was long neglected in Gospel study. Yet it has limitations. For example, sometimes social theory rather than the text itself in its literary context drives interpretation. Still, if social-scientific criticism is used judiciously it can help to discover additional potential meaning and significance.

A welcome characteristic of most recent Gospel scholarship is a tendency toward integration. Scholars typically have a methodological “target,” but employ insights from various approaches so as to provide richness, depth, and greater plausibility to their interpretations.

The Hole in Our Training: An Open Letter of Appeal to All Seminarians (2)

The other day, I was reading a major Christian publication when I learned of yet another significant Christian leader embroiled in issues of sexual immorality. This all-too-familiar story is derailing an otherwise exceptional career and undermining the influence this leader had attained. My heart sagged from the weight of still one more seemingly mature leader who had left his sexual maturity unaddressed and this gaping hole in his integrity had come back to bite him. I don’t even need to name the leader because whenever and wherever you are reading this article, another leader’s sordid story is likely being splashed across the internet.

Perhaps, like me, you find yourself wondering how many more leaders need to fall before we take seriously the rampant need for sexual discipleship and maturity among Christian leaders.

As men and women preparing for full-time Christian ministry, this need for change begins with us. If we can get this dialed in at the start of our ministry career, our ability to finish well will increase exponentially!.

In my last essay, I borrowed the term “sexual discipleship” from Dr. Juli Slattery to describe the work that is necessary to bring each man and woman to a place of health and maturity in their sexuality. The term “discipleship” invokes ideas of learning, training, and growth. Far too often, we think of sexual integrity as an issue of morality—choosing between right and wrong. But as I put forward in part one, our issues with lust, pornography, and other forms of sexual brokenness are typically rooted in places of immaturity. We don’t need to be shamed or condemned into change; we need to be instructed, guided, and helped on a path to a better way in our sexuality.

What does the healing path toward sexual maturity look like? How can we be discipled in this area? This path is not easy or quick, but from my own story and work with hundreds of others in recovery, I offer the following six principles that can guide us to sexual health and maturity. We can learn from these principles, whether the need is in our own life at a personal level or for the good of those we will one day lead.

(1) Believe that Jesus cares about healthy sexuality.

Okay, I know this sounds trite, but hear me out. Far too many Christ-followers, if they are honest, have separated their spirituality from their sexuality. They believe that God wants them to do the right thing and not sin, but they haven’t embraced the fullness of the gospel and the creation of their body as a sexual being. Our sexuality was, and is, God’s idea. He cares deeply about what we do with it—not just if we are avoiding sin or not, but if we are experiencing life to the full in our sexuality.

When we believe that Jesus cares deeply about this area of our life, we can take a more serious approach to health and recovery. When I say serious, I don’t mean a sad and somber approach to condemning our sin. What I mean is that the focus and attention one must bring to the table to find lasting healing is typically significant. If we bring a half-hearted effort, healing is rarely found. But if we embrace how deeply Jesus cares about this aspect of our life, and we bring a sincere desire to do whatever it takes to walk in freedom, then true progress can be made.

(2) See the path, not the point.

One of the greatest myths perpetuated among Christian circles is the idea that a godly man or woman should be able to stare down sexual temptation and make the choice to simply walk away. This concept sounds right and good, but it ignores a host of factors beyond the moral choice being made. Another version of this myth says that if a man or woman goes forward at a healing service of some kind, they can be miraculously delivered from a “spirit of lust” and never struggle again. We focus on the one moment—the point—and lose sight of the path to healing and recovery.

While I believe in miracles, and pray for them often, I have found that this is rarely the way the Spirit of God works in our sexuality. When we are stuck in some kind of unwanted sexual behavior, a host of other factors—patterns in our brain, the release of neurochemicals related to past triggers, unaddressed trauma—contribute to the choices we make. Unraveling this system is a process and can take time. If we are prepared to walk a path to transformation, the Spirit of God will work small miracles all along the way.

(3) Develop greater self-awareness.

Seeing the path necessitates that we have the ability to recognize our triggers and points of weakness quickly. In the situation I mentioned above—a man or woman staring down intense temptation and walking away—the remedy I have found most effective is to learn how to avoid a situation where you are likely to face intense temptation altogether. This involves a heightened level of self-awareness, where a person can begin to recognize how various factors around them might contribute to a sexual trigger. Sights, sounds, smells, emotional or physical sensations, and environments (like the anonymity of a hotel room) can all become triggers the brain has associated with sexual arousal or desire.

This is referred to as a person’s arousal template. If we are blind to our personal template—and it differs for every person—it is unlikely we will be able to change our patterns. When we are continually triggered by the same old patterns, we are like a locomotive that has already left the station and is picking up steam. The more momentum that builds up, the more difficult it is to redirect the locomotive. So it is for us. If we can redirect the “train” of our thoughts, emotions, and desires early in the process, we will have a far greater likelihood of avoiding the outcome of the temptation. This kind of awareness develops most readily in an open, honest community.

(4) Embrace the healing power of community.

Developing the level of self-awareness needed to accurately and consistently pinpoint our triggers is nearly impossible to do alone or in isolation. Why? Because of blind spots. We all have them. You do. I do. And we can either act like we don’t, and continue to be tripped up by them, or we can embrace the help that others can give us on this journey. If you consider the human body, God has given us two eyes in order that one eye might compensate for the blind spot of the other. The same is true in life. On our own, we will continue to rationalize, minimize, or deny the severity of our behavior. We need other people who are on the same journey toward wholeness to help us see what we cannot see.

Another important aspect of community is the truth behind our trauma. The trauma and pain we have experienced in life are relational in nature. We have been wounded—intentionally or unintentionally—through relationships with our parents, caregivers, coaches, relatives, and friends. Because these wounds have come through relationships, we cannot heal in isolation. We need positive, healthy relationships with others who know us well—and know our full story—to repair the damage and renew our minds. For these reasons, a group experience correlates highly to lasting transformation.

(5) Address the pain driving the behavior.

One of the great dangers in the journey toward freedom is to become overly focused on changing or stopping the behavior. Yes, we certainly want to see the behavior itself amended—and for good—but the behavior is only the tip of the iceberg. We act the way we do because of underlying thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These thoughts and feelings are driven by past experiences and the way we have interpreted what happened to us in life. These interpretations become core beliefs—false core beliefs that relate to our identity, value, and sense of worth.

For example, if you grew up in a home with a busy dad who was often gone from the home, and when he was home rarely engaged with you, you have likely internalized a message from this relationship that you aren’t good enough. (This is a story I have heard in a thousand different ways over the years.) This feeling—or false core belief—of not being good enough can be the emotional trigger that drags you back into sexual fantasies—a world where, at least for a few moments, you are always good enough. In this example, if you were to focus solely on stopping the fantasies without addressing the wounds driving it, how successful do you think you would be? When we address the pain and trauma of our past, we address the engine driving our sexual behavior and lasting change becomes possible.

(6)Walk in new ways.

As we follow these first five principles, we must be able to replace old thought patterns with new ones, old behaviors with new habits, and old messages with new truths. If we only deal with the old, but don’t proactively build in new patterns, we are like the person Jesus describes in Luke 11:24–26: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

I have worked with far too many individuals who did the hard work of dealing with their old, unwanted sexual behavior, only to end up in another trap like workaholism, making an idol of their health, or even becoming addicted to another substance like alcohol or video games. We have developed the negative behaviors in our life because we are looking for something—looking for a way to find purpose and value in life. As we get healthy, an essential element of health is to fill up our life with the good things God has for us. A new community, new opportunities to serve, and new healthy habits become the defense against reverting to old, unhealthy patterns.

So, I hope these six principles give you an idea of the journey that lies ahead.

Where do we go from here?

Let me close with a few steps you can take.

Be educated. What are you doing to develop your understanding of human sexuality and God’s goodness to us in our sexuality? One resource you could use is the Sexual Integrity 101 video course put out by Pure Desire Ministries. This eight-week video course will help introduce men and women to the reality of why we struggle as we do and what lasting freedom truly looks like. Some other great resources include the books Pure Desire, Surfing for God, and Wired for Intimacy, or another video study, the Conquer Series.

Join a group. If you believe this struggle exists in your life to any degree, I encourage you with every breath I have to deal with it! This is not an area of our life that will ever go dormant or just go away. This is a James 1 issue—a desire, giving birth to temptation, that leads to sin, which, when fully developed gives way to death. The outcome of unaddressed sexual brokenness is always death. So why on earth would we wait and risk this kind of an outcome? If you are dealing with any level of unaddressed sexual brokenness, the single greatest step you can take is to engage with others on a healing journey. Pure Desire has groups available online that you could join at any time! (Visit www.puredesire.org for more information.) Similar groups exist through several other ministries and can be found through a short search on Google.

Start a group. If you have the heart to help others in this area, it may be that the Spirit would prompt you to be the one who starts a group among your peers. I have found over and over that other people are simply waiting for someone to open the door and honestly say, “I struggle, but I am pursuing freedom in this way.” When this happens, others are quick to speak and say, “Me, too!” But someone has to go first. Could you be the one who starts this process? Pure Desire has group materials for men and women who struggle, and men and women who are dealing with betrayal from a spouse’s behaviors.

My prayer for all of us is that we will be the catalyst of a new generation of leaders—men and women who walk in humility, vulnerability, and integrity. As we learn to be healthy in our sexuality, this is a powerful gift that, with God’s help, can be passed on through us to many, many others. May it be so.

catalyst
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catalyst
May 17, 2021

Over the past fourteen months, as we’ve all tried to do the best we can during this pandemic season, I’ve missed many things about the way my Christian community used to …

May 10, 2021

“Now, do it again. This time, choose a cheerful color.” Her voice was gentle but firm. Mrs. Reeves had particular standards to be met. I clearly had not met hers. Still, …

news & events
April 14, 2021

A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE) John Wesley Fellowships have been awarded to three doctoral students.

The John Wesley Fellows …

April 13, 2021

“To everything, there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1

The World …