Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Naked Pastor and the Danger of Gratuitous Novelty

David Hayward, the self-styled “Graffiti Artist on the Walls of Religion”, is promoting his new book, The Liberation of Sophia (available on Amazon, naturally, for a mere $26.99, and if you think I’m going to link to that for him, you have another think coming). Sophia is a book of 59 cartoons with associated poetry and prose that … well, you can read his description of the work because I’m not sure I can do it justice:
“He began drawing images of a young woman in all kinds of situations. He recognized early on that these drawings weren’t just random pictures, but were the articulation of his interior life’s journey through spiritual, emotional, intellectual and social transition. He realized that Sophia was him!”
David Hayward calls himself the Naked Pastor (when he’s not “Sophia”, I suppose). I haven’t yet discovered why, but since the name is eminently Google-able and mildly transgressive, we can probably guess: Marketing 101. And it works. He’s the number 6 most-visited “Christian” blog this week, and climbing.

But the Naked Pastor has a thing about the Bible’s sheep metaphors.

He really, REALLY hates them.

Now I have no particular desire to pile on Mr. Hayward and spend an entire blog post shredding his understanding of the Bible and the world, but he is so perfectly illustrative of a particular school of modern approach to Scripture that to overlook him would do others of his ilk a disservice. And since he hurls a fair bit of invective at traditional churches for their alleged oppression of their members, particularly women, I’d estimate he’s prepared to have a word or two of polite critique sent his direction.

Mr. Hayward would like us to “stop calling church members sheep”, and he makes this case regularly, most ostentatiously in this blog post, in which he lists 10 reasons he thinks the metaphor could be dropped. 

1.      sheep are stupid
2.      in flocks they are even more gullible
3.      they have to be owned
4.      we eat them
5.      [redacted]
6.      sheep have no defense
7.      they’ll eat anything even if it kills them
8.      they are easy to fleece. In fact they come fleeced!
9.      they spook easily
10.   they’ll follow anybody

I’ve omitted Mr. Hayward’s point 5 because it’s so distasteful that it can only be intended as deliberately provocative, and adds absolutely nothing to his argument.

Just As True Then As Today

You may notice a small problem with Mr. Hayward’s reason for doing away with a metaphor that comes from the heart of God and is employed by Isaiah, David, the Lord himself, Peter and Paul, among others, and that is this: Every single reason he thinks the metaphor no longer works was true the day the metaphor was first employed.

If the image doesn’t “work” now, it never worked.

Sheep have ALWAYS been stupid, displayed greater gullibility in numbers, have always had to be owned, have always been eaten. There are no records of prehistoric sheep with long teeth and nasty claws from which predators ran screaming; they have ALWAYS had no defense. They have always been indiscriminate eaters, have spooked easily, would follow anyone and from time immemorial have each possessed that fleecy coat which is one of the primary reasons for which they are kept and cared for.

Mr. Hayward insists that the sheep metaphor has “largely lost its power”, and then fails to show that a single thing has changed in the nature of sheep or humans since the metaphor was first employed in Scripture.

Which might lead those with nasty, suspicious minds to conclude that his issue is not with the timeliness or relevance of the metaphor; his issue is with the fact that the metaphor does not always flatter believers. And Mr. Hayward is all about self-esteem, so this is a problem for him.

The writers of Scripture, however, did not consider it their primary task to bolster our self-esteem. Rather, carried along by the Holy Spirit, they chose images that presented the human condition exactly as it is. So they said things like:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
in which Isaiah accurately and helpfully reminded us of our lost, hopeless situation and the Lord’s provision for it. Believers, Jews and the lost are variously compared to sheep throughout the word of God.

Most egregiously, Mr. Hayward’s campaign to drop the sheep metaphor would do away with the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. Sorry Mr. Hayward, you can’t have that one.

In fact, you can’t have any of them.

Cultural Red Herrings

Then there is Mr. Hayward’s cultural red herring. He says:
“Most people don’t understand sheep, flocks or farmers. Shepherds are a mystery just as much as sheep are. Most of us certainly do not understand the bedouin culture it has its roots in where the metaphor was rich with meaning.”
His point is that since we don’t interact with sheep daily like the agrarians of years past, we can’t possibly grasp the subtleties of Bible imagery and therefore we should replace the images of sheep with … well, he doesn’t say what exactly. Puppies, perhaps.

But a good metaphor is always “rich with meaning”. It’s just a question of how much digging we’re prepared to do to grasp it. And frankly, not very much digging is required.

I assume Mr. Hayward has heard of YouTube. Watch this if you have 3-1/2 minutes to spare. It’s quite instructive. It’s a shepherd. And his sheep “hear his voice”, if you can believe it. Even in 2014. Just about everything you need to know to understand sheep today can be learned just that fast, if you don’t know it already. The rest you can read on Wikipedia in less than half an hour. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of such resources, and you can view them on your cellphone, Mr. Hayward.

Further, let’s think about this whole cultural thing for a second.

It’s not as if Jewish history is some sort of homogenous whole where every moment from Abraham to Christ existed in exactly the same cultural milieu. We’re talking about a period of just slightly over two millennia during which Israel experienced: living in tents; slavery in Egyptian culture; life among, and oppression by, the Canaanites they failed to drive from the promised land; captivity by the Babylonians, Medes and Persians, and exposure to those cultures; and finally, education into the Greek culture and language which were absorbed by the Romans who ruled Israel at the time of Christ.

It’s like assuming that the culture in which the King James Bible was written is identical to ours. Multiplied by five times the number of years or so.

Some Jews were agrarians. Some Jews were urbanites. Some, like Daniel and Esther, served in the courts of foreign kings and may never have seen a sheep. Different Israelites had different experiences and different levels of exposure to sheep. But the metaphor was in use the entire time for Israelites in all situations and employed by the New Testament writers of the epistles to communicate with Gentiles of all sorts and ultimately with us.

Mr. Hayward seems to think culture (or rather, his flawed, limited, modern view of culture) trumps the inspiration of the word of God. Did the Holy Spirit choose the sheep metaphor in ignorance of the fact that some listeners and readers of God’s word would find it more difficult to relate to than others? I think not.

Jettisoning Irrelevancies

We are free to wave goodbye to mere tradition the moment it becomes a hurdle or barrier to the communication of the gospel. That which has become irrelevant may be jettisoned without remorse the moment we find a better way to do things. I’ve written to that effect myself on more than one occasion.

At one time, the word of God was written on scrolls and preserved by priests and scribes. The common man did not have access to it except to the repeated, oral word he heard at temples and synagogues and that which he had memorized. Then, through the invention of the printing press, rather late in the history of our world the word of God has been distributed throughout the world in the most egalitarian of ways.

In the next few months I hope to transition from a paper Bible to a digital one, where I’ll have every possible translation, my notes, concordances, maps and study tools all in one small, portable device. I flinch at the notion of leaving behind my collection of books, but if a small portable tool better equips me to read, study and communicate the word of God, then for me, that’s the way to go. Traditions, tools and methodologies may be abandoned the moment they cease to be the most efficient way to to serve the truth.

However, the word of God “stands forever”. It is “forever settled in heaven”. It does not require that we “drop” the aspects of it we have difficulty with; it requires that we study to show ourselves approved in order that we can explain them accurately. And there has never been a time in history when more resources have been more available to us and more diverse than the present.

Mr. Hayward seems obsessed with novelty. Innovation is a great thing, and we need to keep up with the times and culture where our methods are concerned.

But the word of God is in another class entirely. It is not to be the subject of gratuitous novelty.

We innovate in that respect at our own peril.

1 comment :

  1. Ummm...I hesitate to point this out, but "Sophia" was the pagan goddess of wisdom (which is what the word "sophia" means, actually). This goddess was a standard fixture in the Gnostic religion.

    So Mr. Hayward is calling himself a "wise goddess"?

    I guess he's not "sheepish" about self-promoting, anyway.