New Book on the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment Doesn’t Say What You Think It Does | MotherJones: But when you actually go back and look at the debate that went into drafting of the amendment, you can squint and look really hard, but there’s simply no evidence of it being about individual gun ownership for self-protection or for hunting.

This has long been clear to those who are willing to sit down and do the research or, heck, even just read the text of the 2nd Amendment.

I’ll admit that I’m getting closer to supporting a repeal of all gun rights. Many will claim that to be “un-American,” but if “American” is synonymous with the rights of some (to own a gun for protection or to hunt) being more important than the rights of others (to live) or if “American” is synonymous with simply accepting the tens of thousands of gun-related deaths per year in our country, then I don’t want to be “American.”

One’s desire to hunt (it is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution) should not trump the right of every other citizen to not be shot. As President Obama said recently of our now-regular shootings,

The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It’s not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyone else. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that’s sort of par for the course. . . . There’s no advanced developed country on earth that would put up with this.

Except for us, of course, because some people have engaged in revisionist history and willful ignorance when it comes to the Second Amendment and because some people honestly believe that their right to own a gun should be more important than someone else’s dead kids, especially when these dead kids are black and brown.

As Michael Waldman’s new book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, points out Justice Scalia’s argument that he is an “originalist” – basing his decisions on the original intent of the framers of the Constitution – is fundamentally flawed. For it is impossible to know the original intent of an author. In my field, this question comes up time and again with reference to ancient texts, especially the Bible. Many argue for “authorial intent,” and base interpretations on what the author meant, but as has been made clear for centuries now, this is not something we can know, even when we are confident that we have gotten very close. In reality, it is our current circumstances, world-views, and various social and political leanings that most influence how we read old texts, the Constitution notwithstanding. This is why, for instance, Waldman is able to show how interpretations of the Second Amendment have changed so much over time.

This should be reason enough to abandon the fantasy that we can interpret the Constitution for today based on what it meant when it was first written. But I think that we should go beyond even this. We simply do not live in the same world as those who wrote this Amendment in 1791 lived in. We have no need of militia’s, we have no recent memory of a foreign power ruling over us. Since we are already interpreting the Constitution based on our place and circumstances, why not be honest about it and maybe try to do some good. It is not unheard of for us to realize that things needed to be changed. The Thirteenth Amendment did this, turning over the then-Constitutional Three-Fifths Compromise.

After George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin February 26, 2012 I heard a lot of people echoing the comment of NRA President Wayne LaPierre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (This is a myth, by the way) But I wonder why, if we have so many “good guys” in this country, they don’t care enough about those around them who are getting killed every day to do something about it. Maybe we could start by making it tougher to buy a gun than to vote or drive a car or purchase antihistamines.

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What I’ve Learned From Writing My Dissertation . . . So Far

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation

I’ve been actively writing my dissertation for just over 4 weeks now. I had done a significant amount of research and translation of primary sources (oh, the translations – I have a single-spaced document with my own translations of all of the relevant primary sources that currently stands at 57 pages) prior to beginning the writing phase. Also, this 4 weeks includes taking off almost a full week of writing when family came to visit.

As of writing this post, I have over 15,000 words written. The combination of text and footnotes puts me currently at 48 pages. I’m not sure how that compares to the pace of other writers. I know that it’s quite a bit slower than my normal pace of writing, but it’s going well. I’ve read a lot about how one should write – enough to know that there is no single answer (aside, of course, from sitting down and actually writing). Should I write 20 minutes every day or 2 hours? Should I write every day or only during the week? There is no shortage of those who are willing to offer their answers as gospel, but what I have learned over a decade of post-high school education is that the best way for me to write is my way.

That looks different than some and I often break many conventional rules. For instance, I edit, look up sources, and input footnotes during my writing [GASP!]. The nature of the chapter I’m currently writing means that every day or so is a new mini-research project that requires the acquisition of new sources. Some will say that I should simply put in [CITATION] where one is needed or come back during a distinct editing time to drop in that quote. For me, though, that just seems to create more work for later when it will take me much less time to do it now than later when I have to go back to where I was, remember the quote I wanted, determine if I worded the surrounding text appropriately, etc.

My writing strategy is nothing special.  Contrary to the rumors a friend of mine is apparently spreading, I am not “basically done” with my dissertation. I came into the summer with a healthy amount of research and a well-thought-out outline. I made a goal to write X number of pages over the summer and promised myself – and, by extension, my wife – to only write on weekdays (I have a life outside of academia that I love and I want to keep it that way). As a result of my progress so far, I have been able to increase my summer page goal. I have one day where I wrote almost 3,000 words. I have another day with only 39. And that’s okay for me. An arbitrary daily word count only ensures that I will keep writing just to write when a day’s task has already been appropriately completed.

My experience in academia has not been as long or varied as many, but it has been long enough to see the ubiquitousness of particularly mindset: as an academic You should always be working/writing. There is a pervasive mentality that academics should not take time off. They should work every day, even weekends. Vacations should be done so that research can happen concurrently. Many (especially graduate students) offer humblebrags about how late they stayed up, how many all-nighters they have pulled, or how they never take a day off. I got in to academia and I research early Christianity because I love it, true, but it’s also a job (if you can call what I have now a “job” – and I hope it leads to a “real” job in the not-too-distant future). I have a wife with whom I enjoy spending time. We often eat 3 meals together in a day. We watch (probably way too much) HGTV. We’ve started playing tennis. I like to travel. I like to run. I like to ride my bike. I have friends. Work is important, but it’s also important to set boundaries, even more so when your work is also a passion.

You’ll notice that this mentality among academics differs with what most non-academics think of academics; namely, that they teach 2 or 3 classes and then hang out at a coffee shop for the rest of the day reading Karl Marx. This, even as new research is simply confirming what we have always know: “Professors work long days, on weekends, on and off campus, and largely alone.”

So, what have I learned?

1. My way of writing works for me; it may not work for others. It’s amazing how much you can get written when you sit down and write instead of reading other people tell you how to write.

2. Setting boundaries has meant that I’ve been productive and been able to take much needed breaks to go to the beach or a baseball game.

3. Good time management is essential. This has always been a strong suit of mine (I’m leading a roundtable/workshop on it at AAR in San Diego in November), but it’s even more important during the summer when I have all this “free time” and have to make my own schedule, be my own motivation, set my own deadlines, etc.

4. Writing a dissertation can actually be a fun process. To hear some academics speak, you’d think the dissertation process necessitates that one come through it with scars, a horror story, and talk of a life-changing experience. Maybe it’s because I’m only 15,000 words in, or maybe it’s because I like what I’m writing about (hint: I write a lot about sex), but I’ve quite enjoyed my writing so far. To be sure, some days are less enjoyable than others, but on the whole it’s been fun so far. This may change. Stay tuned.

What do I have left to learn about this process? What did you learn?

Bonus: You can get occasional insights into what I’m writing on on a given day or during a given week, if you follow me on Twitter.

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The Journey Continues

For Sam, that is. He’s heading back to finish his Master of Divinity.

Back to Seminary | Sam Harrelson: However, incessant gentle prodding from a hand unseen drives me towards an extended realization that to be fully actualized I must throw myself into the fiery and mysterious darkness of Sinai where God’s voice still hovers and beckons humanity to listen.

Sam has been (and continues to be) a great friend. I can’t wait to see what the next leg of his journey looks like and to be involved in any way possible. Head over and check out the rest of the post where he lays out why and why now.

Also, be sure to check out ministrieslab.

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On Mother’s Day

My mom is great. Really. She loves me and accepts me unconditionally, but she also challenges me and pushes me to be more caring, more open, and more loving. She celebrates even my smallest achievements as only a mother can. I won’t say that my mom is better than your mom (she is) or that my mom can beat up your mom (she can), but I do hope you have a mom that’s just as great. She’s taught me a lot and, I’m sure, tried to teach me much more.

So, on Mother’s Day and in honor of her, here are a few pictures from the trip that me, Trinity, and my parents took to Sweden this summer to visit friends. It was a great trip and I can’t wait until our next one.

DSC01922 DSC02216 DSC02103 DSC02034

Picture 1: Downtown Stockholm in the background
Picture 2: At Lyckans Slip on the west coast
Picture 3: At Håkan and Margareta’s house in Munkeby (also, in front of their sailboat)
Picture 4: At City Hall, Stockholm, overlooking the Baltic Sea just steps from where Trinity and I got engaged in 2006.

Thanks, mom, for who you are and who you’ve helped me become.



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Sin is Culturally Defined

La Confession de Pietro Longhi, vers 1750

La Confession de Pietro Longhi, vers 1750

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. A very long time.

The reality of the title statement hit me sometime in my teens, as I attended a church that taught that the consumption of alcohol was a sin. Yet my parents, relatives, and family friends – all equally “Christian” – drank alcohol responsibly. I stepped closer to this statement when a very important time of my life ended in disappointment because my powerful conversation partner remained shut down to my claims that current religious prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol (and the subsequent labeling of such activity as “sin”) were merely a holdover of our country’s earlier legal prohibitions.

Through college and divinity school I became exposed to numerous groups of Christians who had different lists of “sins,” different definitions – sometimes radically different. Why was this so, I wondered? Were some “better Christians”? Were some more “devout”?

It was, I think, during divinity school that I started openly telling others my theory that sin was culturally defined. I was rebuffed, often. Opponents of my view would quote Bible verses to me and I would quote them back. Romans 14 quickly became a favorite chapter of mine. Verse 5b: “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” Verse 14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Even Paul was proclaiming the relativity of sin.

[Aside: This is the same Paul who cannot settle on what he even means when he uses the term "sin." It is sometimes very clearly doing things one ought not do, but other times it is very clearly some cosmic force which is able to indwell human beings and in fact does dwell in the flesh, while the Spirit of God dwells in the spirit. Yay, dualism.]

Recent conversations in our country and in various Christian circles about same-sex marriage have caused me to become more convinced than ever. Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage because homosexuality is a “sin,” or at the very least that engaging in “homosexual acts” are sinful, employ the so-called clobber verses: Romans 1, Leviticus 20, etc. The selectivity of using these verses (and not verses that prohibit wearing clothing made of mixed materials, for instance) as a guideline has been pointed out and labeled hypocritical. Countless proponents of marriage equality have talked about Romans 1, the homoerotic acts discussed therein, and the invention of “homosexuality” in the 19th century as though they were experts. The text does not mean what it seems plainly to mean, but instead one must realize that there was no understanding of things such as “sexuality” and same-sex monogamy at the time, the arguments go.

While the authority of the Bible is regularly given as the reason for claiming that homosexuality is a sin, I have yet to meet someone who claimed that homosexuality was a sin that would claim the opposite about slavery, though the Bible clearly and repeatedly condones the latter. Claims have been made by religious leaders and politicians and Facebook friends that the “Biblical definition of marriage” is that of one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, after all. In response to this I am fond of posting this helpful chart:

Biblical Marriage

All of these miss the mark, though. For it is our culture, or our particular subculture, that has already defined “sin” for us. We need only to provide the explanations for our classification. When examined with a critical eye, it becomes apparent that there is no consistent list of “sins.” My dad could not play cards when he was growing up, though I could and no one considered telling me that the activity was a “sin.” Galatians 5.2 says, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” Even so, most American Christians permit their male children to be circumcised. It is the cultural norm. Claims will be made of lax or weak Christians, though the hypocrisy runs rampant in all stripes of Christian. Merely pointing this out only takes us so far.

We do better to realize that intimately connected to what counts as “sin” is the power struggle over identity and legitimacy. Liberal Christians denounce conservative Christians as not really following Christ’s example. Conservative Christians denounce liberal Christians as not accepting the authority of the Bible. The recent World Vision debacle gave us a trove of examples people from all sides engaging in these identity politics in the matter of a few days. Charges flew back and forth explaining who was a “true Christian” or who was worthy of the name “Christian.” The ones leveling the charges always included themselves in the “true Christian” group. Self interest, FTW, huh?

At the heart of these struggles are people and groups engaging in the varied processes of identify formation and maintenance. For the authenticity of one’s faith to be legitimated, his opponent’s faith must be delegitimated, so the thinking goes. We see the same processes at work in the early Church when Paul fought vehemently with the Jerusalem Church over Gentile entrance requirements, when Irenaeus and Epiphanius produced their (in)famous lists of heresies, when controversies arose over the personhood or divinity of Jesus, when bishops used their powerful connections to oust competing bishops, when those in power feared the new-found popularity and increasing authority of the desert fathers and mothers, when “heretical” groups were excommunicated and then when they were no longer considered “heretical” because someone new was in power.

It seems a cynical and crass way to view history and to view the church, yet no other view suffices. No other view explains the arbitrary nature of what is considered “sin” at a particular time and place. We need only look to the sermons about the “curse of Ham” to justify the institution of slavery in this country and to couple these with their context: civil war America where one part of the country had a significant economic interest in maintaining that slavery not only should be legal and was not a “sin,” but that it was actually part of God’s plan. Such a sermon would never fly today in an America that has outlawed slavery, has outlawed Jim Crow laws, has continued to make progress in racial equality (though it remains slow, painful, and rarely steady), has elected its first black President, and recalls with fondness and humility Dr. King’s dream. The context has changed. The culture has changed.

Similar examples can be given of how shifts in public opinion are directly tied to shifts in theological understandings and understandings of “sin” as it relates to issues such as same-sex marriage, drug usage, interracial marriage, drinking alcohol, etc.

It is true that in many circles I am considered a “heretic.” I have been deeply influenced by being met with hostility and questions like, “How can you call yourself a Christian?” So I am keenly aware (and have become much more aware thanks to Foucault, Bourdieu, McCutcheon, etc.) of the role that power and identity politics play in claims of truth, authenticity, and normativity. Sin is no exception.

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