Tuesday, August 10, 2004

An Unexpected Bible Lesson

You don’t expect to hear interpretation of the Bible on a prime time network television show, especially an accurate one. But that’s exactly what I heard on one show recently.

This summer, both my wife, a school librarian, and my son, a college senior, have become fans of the NBC hit, West Wing, episodes of which are re-run every day on cable’s Bravo network. Because my office is at home, I’ve heard and seen sporadic snippets of the show, which recounts the life of a fictional U.S. president and his administration.

On a recently re-run episode, the president, played by Martin Sheen, and his wife, played by Stockard Channing, walked through the executive mansion, discussing, of all things, Ephesians 5:21-33. It’s found in the Bible’s New Testament. In the passage, the first century Christian evangelist Paul talks about marriage.

Paul tells wives to “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

Husbands are told to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Often, the passage is used as justification for male-dominated marriages by some, and as reason for repudiating Christianity by others.

But, the fictional President Bartlett rightly concludes that Paul isn’t commending male domination. He points out that the whole section begins with the words: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

In other words, marriage is meant to be a fifty-fifty partnership between two equals. Husbands and wives are to be submissive to one another, subordinating their wills and egos to Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who died and rose to give us forgiveness for sin and everlasting life.

One of the primary principles for faithfully interpreting passages of the Bible is the axiom, “Let Scripture interpret Scripture.” We aren’t to read our own cultural or personal biases into the Bible. Instead, we look to what other passages of Scripture have to say on the subject at hand. Doing so allows us to see the patterns and themes of the Bible’s teachings throughout all 66 books of both its Old and New Testaments.

The Bible certainly arose in a patriarchal, male-dominated society. But repeatedly, the God of the Bible calls His followers away from sexism.

For example, Jesus violated the sexual taboos of His time. Men and women of first-century Judea where He lived weren’t supposed to speak together in public. But repeatedly, Jesus initiated conversations with women.

Women were prominent among His followers, something no self-respecting rabbi of His time would have allowed.

The first people to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, chosen by Jesus for that task, were women, not men.

Women had prominent leadership positions in the early Church.

And Paul himself, supposedly a proponent of male domination, is the one who wrote that in the new kingdom Jesus gives to all who follow Him, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus...If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29) In God’s eyes, men and women are equal. Period.

It heartened me to see the West Wing’s liberal Democratic president and his wife portrayed discussing the Bible together. In doing so, they fulfilled a Biblical mandate. God told the ancient Israelites to keep His words and to recite them to their children and to discuss them while at home or away, all the time. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Seeing a network TV show take God’s Word seriously was heartening enough. But it was even more encouraging to hear the fictional President Bartlett get the Bible so right and to show Christian faith in such a positive light.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Fame and the Man on the Moon

After a recent conference in Minnesota, I settled into my seat on a commuter jet flying from Chicago back home to Cincinnati. As I did, I looked up to see Neil Armstrong.

Our eyes briefly locked. He perceived that I recognized him. I sensed him bracing himself to be fawned over for perhaps the three-billionth time since he became the first human being to walk on the Moon. But, much as I would love to talk with Armstrong, I let him pass. Even after the flight, by the baggage carousel, when it would have been easier, I didn’t approach him. I never even considered doing so. I respect him too much for that.

Neil Armstrong always wanted to be successful. But I don’t think he ever wanted to be famous. Unfortunately for him, fame came with success.

But after he’d taken one giant leap into history, Armstrong wanted to live a normal life. He didn’t become a recluse, although some accused him of that. He simply took a job teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati and knuckled down to perform well.

Fame is a weird thing, though. People assume that the famous owe us boundless access. If they deny us that access or seem to slight us by their diffidence, we can be disappointed or hostile.

Fifteen years ago, I was part of a two-person conflict mediation team brokering peace at a congregation in Moulton, Ohio, near Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta. One evening, we made our final recommendations to the congregation and later, there was a fellowship time over coffee, punch, and cookies.

One woman had a burr in her saddle and it had nothing to do with the congregation’s woes. She was angry at Neil Armstrong. I guess she felt the need to discuss it with a pastor. Being the only one present, I became her ad hoc counselor.

The previous night, she’d attended a funeral visitation for one of Armstrong’s relatives in Wapakoneta. Armstrong had been there and when she approached him, he hadn’t recognized or remembered her.

Offended, she asked me, “What do you suppose happens to a person when they get famous that they don’t even remember their friends?”

“Um,” I began uncertainly, “when was the last time you talked with Neil Armstrong?”

“I guess it’s been about thirty years,” she said.

“Well,” I offered, “don’t you imagine that he’s done a lot and met quite a few people over the past thirty years?”

“I suppose,” she said. But I could tell that she was still convinced that of all the people he’d known in his life, Neil Armstrong certainly should have remembered her.

I’ve argued in this column before that celebrities are people too. We who are so anxious to have our names put on lists to keep from being bothered by telemarketers and who get perturbed by pop-up ads on our computers can certainly understand why the famous may not be anxious to treat every person they pass in a restaurant like their bosom buddy.

It seems to me that when we have chance encounters with celebrities---especially those who have never courted fame, like Neil Armstrong---that the least we can do is remember Jesus’ Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, after I saw Neil Armstrong on that flight home, I sat back, savoring the notion that, though I would never meet him, I was flying with the man on the Moon!

[Mark Daniels is pastor of Friendship Church. You can find his columns, sermons, and other writings at markdaniels.blogspot.com on the web.]