If there's a collection of documents any more radical than the short books that make up the New Testament, I have yet to encounter it.
So when I see the extent to which the New Testament is co-opted by Christians and skeptics alike for their own nefarious purposes, I sometimes despair.
I wonder to myself, "Have these people even bothered to read it?"
The words of Jesus, St. Paul, St. John and the rest are truly revolutionary.
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These founders turn the common wisdom of their time, and ours, on its head.
In the New Testament, up is down; down is up.
The poor are blessed; the rich are cursed. The ostentatiously religious are broods of vipers bound for hell; blatant sinners, however, get ushered rejoicing into heaven. If you seek to live, you'll die; if you surrender yourself to death, you'll live.
I thought of this again as I read about the meltdown of the Duggar family, stars of a TV reality show called 19 Kids and Counting.
It turns out a Duggar son, Josh, molested several young girls a dozen years ago when he was about 14, including some of his sisters.
There's a great deal to be said about all that, but most of it already has been said.
I only vaguely knew who these people were, and a yardstick of my obliviousness to reality TV is that I've been stunned by the national fixation on this scandal.
Even presidential hopefuls are commenting on the Duggars.
Really? This is a presidential matter?
However, a tangential issue regarding the New Testament did occur to me.
It turns out the Duggars are at least nominally associated with something called the Quiverfull movement, which, in the words of syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, is a "Christian patriarchy sect" whose tenets can be boiled down to: "Men rule; women serve."
The Duggars insist they're not active participants in the movement. But, in any case, they apparently share many of its core beliefs.
Theological conservatives who consider women inferior to men — not all conservatives agree — often claim to draw their authority directly from the Bible.
I've long thought their brand of patriarchal teachings about men's and women's roles stem from an exceedingly superficial reading of the texts.
I say this not as an advocate for modernists' or feminists' views, either, because I believe progressive and feminist theologians distort the New Testament's comments on gender roles to about the same extent as conservatives do.
Everyone seems to either willfully or blindly miss the biblical writers' points.
Except me. (Ha. That's a joke. Kind of.)
St. Paul is the butt of much of this distortion.
For instance, in the book of Ephesians, he famously — or infamously — commands that a wife should obey her husband as if the old birdbrain were Jesus Christ himself. Conservatives wield this passage to put women in their place and keep them there.
Feminists employ it as a cudgel against Paul.
They're both wrong.
Here's what Paul really is saying. Read the passage yourself, in its entirety.
Yes, Paul indeed says a wife should obey her husband. But immediately — while living in an exceedingly male-dominated ancient culture — he says to husbands: If you Christian men believe you're the Jesus of your household, then you're obligated to be the type of leader Jesus was.
We know, as did Paul, that Jesus said a godly leader is foremost a humble servant to those he leads. He'll love them no matter what. He'll wash their dirty feet or perform any other task, no matter how demeaning. He'll sacrifice his own desires.
Then he says to children: Honor and obey your parents; show them true respect.
Next, Paul addresses parents: Parents, especially you fathers, never be overbearing toward your children. Nurture them.
You who are slaves, Paul says, don't just give your master lip service, but serve him conscientiously, from the heart, as if he were the Lord.
(Note that Paul isn't, as some charge, defending slavery. He's addressing the reality of his era. Elsewhere he tells slaves that if they see an opportunity to gain their freedom, of course they should seize it.)
And finally, you slave-masters, Paul says, treat your servants compassionately, remembering they're as important to God as you are, and that you yourself are God's slave, and that someday you'll answer for your actions.
Do we see a pattern yet?
Obviously we don't. The point is lost in our era, on patriarchal men and feminist women alike. Paul's point is far too radical for our rights-asserting, image-obsessing, résumé-polishing, photo-bombing, endzone-dancing culture.
He's giving everyone an identical rule: Whoever we are, whatever our role, we must quit living for ourselves. We should prefer to serve others — our spouse, our kids, our parents, our boss, our employees — rather than to be served.
If you're familiar with the body of Paul's writings, you'll understand he's not defending serious abuse. Serving someone doesn't mean you submit to molestation, rape, beatings or even to damaging brow-beatings. You have a right to health and safety.
Instead, he's saying true peace, true life and true freedom result from our routinely laying aside our everyday claims and wounds. We function best by seeking the good of others, especially when it makes us uncomfortable or isn't quite fair to us.
It's a message 21st century America is as deaf to as the first century Roman Empire was.
It's a message for this world that's not of this world.
It's a message designed specifically to crucify our big boundless egos, which, left unchecked, consign us to misery and perhaps damnation.