Women of Valor

January 21, 2013

The title itself piqued my curiosity: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” And I had enjoyed reading Rachel Held Evans’ blog before. So when the Kindle store ran a special on the book, I snatched it. And read it. And liked it.

I wanted first to see how Evans used humor to carry on a serious conversation. Fans of her book bragged on her being disarming, thoughtful and witty, smart and funny, and on her showing “humor, humility, and truth.” I agree. She uses humor to expose “public tomfoolery” for what it is, prompting laughter to shed light on the absurd, the contrived, and the exaggerated. She also creates space with humor to explore difficult subjects. I found many places where Evans makes readers laugh out loud while she’s telling the truth.

I have not personally aspired to “biblical womanhood,” but a burgeoning supply of books, audios, and videos promises to help those who do. Of course, they disagree on what it means and have a hard time choosing which biblical woman should be the standard. Should it be sneaky Rebekah, or Jael, who nailed a guy’s head to the ground, or Huldah the prophet, or the women who traveled with Jesus, or the women who prophesied, taught, and were “elders” in the emerging Church? A lot of the books focus on the hard-to-find woman of Proverbs 31, sometimes shortened (embarrassingly) to “P31 girl.”

Evans, with the help of a Jewish friend and mentor, treats the Proverbs 31 woman beautifully as eshet chayil, a “woman of valor,” a woman of courage, grace, and wisdom. She rightly describes how the song of Proverbs 31 honors women without turning them into stay-at-home moms who run home businesses and knit socks. But I’ll let you read her for these insights.

As an Old Testament teacher, I’ve been puzzled by the rules-based views some hold of Proverbs 31. Let me tell you why. Lady Wisdom (or Wisdom Woman) stars in Proverbs: she helped God create the world, she calls out to everyone as teacher in the public square, she warns young men about themselves and dangerous Dame Folly, she puts on a huge banquet for all who will come and learn her wisdom, and much more. In later Jewish wisdom books, ones that many Christians include in their Bibles (in the “Apocrypha”), her prominent role grows ever greater. In the light of this, many interpreters see Proverbs 31 as a distillation of who Lady Wisdom is and what she teaches. Even as it uses the metaphor of a “woman of valor,” it continues to teach both men and women how to live well. It models lessons of Proverbs about hard work, compassion, planning, paying steady attention to what needs to be done, and more. Men, too, are to be women of valor, even if they hesitate to pursue biblical womanhood.

Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for showing so well how humor can help tell the truth. Thanks, too, for her thoughtful study and interpretation in a time of loud and mixed voices. Her book will serve women and men well, I’m sure. It’s very worth getting, even if it’s not on sale.


Funnier than John

January 14, 2013

I’m sure that all of the Gospels use humor, including the bad-mouthed Gospel of John (see my recent blog “The Humorless Gospel”), but to me, Luke has the best sense of humor. New Testament scholar Joseph A. Grassi’s book, God Makes Me Laugh: A New Approach to Luke, pushes me even more in that direction.

Though we can see lots of humor in Jesus’ stories full of comic characters and twists in plot, Grassi shows the many examples of comic structures like surprise, reversals, the unlikely, upside-down, and backwards, features which, as Frederick Buechner suggests, make the Gospel itself comedy. In Grassi’s words, we see in Luke “…’an upside-down’ theology of surprise, grace, and shock.” (28)

Grassi’s opening chapter talks about “Divine and Human Laughter – The Roots of Comic Eschatology.” (This was baffling enough that a proofreader changed “comic” in the title to “cosmic.”) Grassi begins: “When people plan, trusting only in human power, God laughs; when God plans, working through human weakness, people laugh. In this paradox is found the roots of comic eschatology.” (14) The whole Bible includes many examples, but the examples in Luke overflow.

Luke starts with an old woman and a virgin having babies, and recalls the words to Sarah, another old woman soon to be pregnant, “nothing’s impossible with God.” He then draws a sharp contrast between the stern baptizer John and the “playful and joyful” Jesus who feasted with unlikely (=forbidden) people, much to the dismay of pious folks. Jesus commented on the difference: “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:31-35) Try the interpretive principle “Imagine Jesus smiling” here, and think of folks you’ve heard get great laughs by pointing out such huge contradictions.

In a chapter called “Miracles and Comic Reversals,” Grassi showcases the humorous paradoxes of the included becoming the excluded while the excluded are suddenly included, of the unclean becoming clean and the clean becoming unclean. Against the background of Sabbath and purity laws, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, touches lepers, and acts undefiled by contact with a woman overcome by years of continuous blood flow. He tells stories about bountiful banquets offered to the marginal and invisible folk, “the poor and maimed and blind and lame,” outcasts who can never pay you back, a “feast of fools,” in Grassi’s words.

Other chapters speak of “crazy discipleship,” “paradoxical parables,” “humor in prayer,” “foolish forgiveness,” and the notable role of women in Jesus’ mission, a huge reversal of common practice.

Luke is generally regarded as the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and Grassi rightly explores how the themes and stories in the two books complement each other. They both capture the shock and surprise, the comic explosion of the Kingdom of God. Luke, sometimes a traveling companion of Paul, witnessed the joy of all of this for himself, heard the early Christians tell him what they had seen, and freely shares it with his readers.

The Good News is upside-down, exciting, and funny. Read Luke (and Acts) with eyes wide-open, prepared to laugh and smile. [Grassi’s fine book is a good read, too, and available again at Wipf and Stock.]


Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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