Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

Ancient Silver and copper alloy Egyptian Mirror, Reportedly From: Aswan, Egypt ca. 1478-1390 B.C.E. Brooklyn Museum

The great challenge facing religions with classically male-dominated cultic structures is how to foster the sincere spiritual yearnings of those who by dint of their gender cannot proceed beyond the entrance.

Rabbi Evan Hoffman

Ouch! This cuts so close to home. It is my own experience in the church. Even as a disciple, I could not proceed beyond the entrance. It led me to writing. Rabbi Evan Hoffman writes this as his concluding reflection on Exodus 38:8. And what a strange verse it is. Simply enough, it’s about the making of the bronze basin, the laver for the tabernacle. The verse is sectioned off on its own in most of our Bibles. And it has some peculiarities.

He made the bronze basin and its stand from the bronze mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

Exodus 38:8

This is one of those verses that is supposed to make us stumble a bit. Here are some of the peculiarities:

Why didn’t they use the bronze that was part of the general collection of supplies, of which they had more than they needed (5,310 lbs!)? Why is it notable to mention the basin was made by melted down metal from mirrors given by these specific people?  (Exod. 35:4; 36:4-5; 38:29)

How is it that these women are serving at the tent of meeting when the tabernacle isn’t actually built yet?

Women? Serving? Tent of Meeting? What are these women doing so close to the priestly action?

But I must answer Rabbi Hoffman with another question, Don’t you see that woman’s very body is a homology of sacred space? It, in a sense, symbolizes what is beyond the entrance.

I’ve written an article about this homology for Modern Reformation, and so you’ll have to read that to understand what I am referring to. It signifies the typology of woman, as collective bride of Christ/mother/Zion. Our bodies speak the good news. And maybe this verse standing on its own is a bit of a type-scene of sorts, giving us a picture that is filled out more in the pages of the canon. But first, let’s look at some of the details:

Mirrors

Mirrors reflect but cannot make one beautiful. There’s all kinds of information we can discuss such as how these women got their mirrors from the Egyptian women, or even the interesting midrash about how they used them as resistance to defy Pharaoh, seduce their husbands, and birth the whole host of Israel from their wombs. And Rachel Adelman notes how “the mirror, both as object and symbol, became ritually metonymic for woman and femininity in some Ancient Near Eastern sources.” It’s interesting to think about how such a feminine symbol is selected to make the cultic laver. All that is good stuff. (And remember that word, host.)

But I want to get back to the basics. Mirrors reflect, they show what’s on the outside. What if these women have found their Groom? And he beautifies from the inside. Instead of this dim reflection of their own faces from polished bronze (or copper), they want to reflect the radiance of him—like Moses!  And they did this in their service/ministering at the entrance to the tent. In that sense, they got in beyond the entrance!

Ministering?

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As high school and college graduation season is approaching, I wanted to trace back to a great book written by Rut Etheridge and published in 2019, God Breathed: Connecting through Scripture, to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself. I happily endorsed it, saying:

It is difficult to find good books targeted for a young adult reading audience. They are usually dumbed down, trying too hard to connect, or cheesy. And yet this is often the time of life when people have serious and meaningful questions about the Christian faith. Rut offers us a “Shaeffer-esque” blend of philosophy, theology, and apologetics that connects with the questions about God that Christians and unbelievers alike wrestle with in our current cultural context. He takes his audience seriously and points them to something (Someone) altogether delightful. I will be giving this one away!

It isn’t one of those smaller books that maybe are more marketable to give to the younger crowd. It’s substantial, just like the questions they are asking. With all the deconversion stories we are hearing, with all the hypocrisy that young adults are naming, and with all the pain and suffering that continues both inside and outside the church, many of the questions are still the same:

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Who Is the Queen of Sheba in the Bible? - Biblical Archaeology Society
From Medieval manuscript Bellifortis by Conrad Kyeser and dates to c. 1405.

Moses’ Wife, the Queen of Sheba, and the Black Bride

There are all kinds of interpretations of the difficult text in Numbers 12. Origen’s is most compelling to me, as he ties it into his homily on the Song of Songs:

‘I am dark and beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon.’

(1.5—Vg. 1.4)

In his book Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley opens his chapter on the Bible and black identity with this verse from the Song, as he goes on to demonstrate how black identity in Scripture, along with multiple ethnicities, show forth God’s promise to Abraham and his original purposes of cultural diversity as a manifestation of his glory. He surveys black identity in Scripture as fulfillment of this promise, tracing through Ephraim & Manasseh (Gen. 48:3-5), the multiethnic group who left Egypt during the exodus (Exod. 12:38), and the conversion of Africans such as Simon of Cyrene and his family (Matt. 27:32), and the Ethiopian eunuch ((Acts 8:26-40). And he concludes, “When the black Christian enters the community of faith, she is not entering a strange land. She is finding her way home.”

That reminded me of Origen’s homily. He comments on the daughters of Jerusalem bringing this charge to the Bride, calling her black, an outsider, “one who has not been enlightened by the patriarch’s teaching.” He speaks for her:

Because of my dark colouring you may compare me to the tents of Cedar and the curtains of Solomon; but even Cedar was descended from Ismael, being born his second son, and Ismael was not without a share in the divine blessing. You liken me even to the curtains of Solomon, which are none other than the curtains of the tabernacle of God—indeed I am surprised, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you should want to reproach me with the blackness of my hue. Have you not come to forget what is written in your Law, as to what Mary [Mariam] suffered who spoke against Moses because he had taken a black Ethiopian to wife? How is it that you do not recognize the true fulfillment of that type in me? I am that Ethiopian.

In expositing Numbers 12, Origen points out the interpretive difficulty of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint. The text says that they spoke against Moses over the Cushite woman he married, but what they said was “Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does he not speak also through us?” (Num. 12:2). What does this have to do with Moses’ Cushite wife? Origen thinks it has to do with what their positions represented typologically.

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Valerie Hobbs wrote and important piece in 2017 on abuse in NAPARC churches. She shares several horrific stories of women seeking help from their leaders but are instead met with re-traumatization and abuse. Please take the time to read this and some of her great suggestions for reform. It angered me to read, as I see how things have only gotten worse. Since my own case of “gross spiritual abuse” in the OPC (as one well-known expert called it) is so public, I am hearing from others with very similar stories as Valerie documents. Too many others. It’s ongoing. It’s atrocious. We are way past a few bad apples. I just can’t understand why the good men in the OPC are not taking the reins here, saying, This is enough! No more abusing our most vulnerable! There is NO Christ in this!

Are we powerless to do this in our own denomination? If so, there is a serious problem with our ecclesial government.

Why does the outcry have to come from the bottom and not from the top? Why do the vulnerable have to pay when they speak? Why do we become your enemies for telling you the truth (Gal. 4:16)? This is the truth: it is clearly time for the denomination to hire a professional third-party investigative team, like G.R.A.C.E. Here is a revised letter that I have sent to a number of church officers in the OPC. It is an urgent plea to shepherd the flock by seeking the help we need. (There are some steps being taken to raise more awareness that is apparently needed, but not the very necessary one of hiring professionals. We are chasing our tails here. Reading Valerie’s post really clarified that for me):

First of all, I want to say that I am grateful for each of you. Just a little over a year ago, I did not know any of you. The church officers that I was friends with in the OPC whom I thought would be there for me to do something about the spiritual abuse that I was under either abandoned me or were not well-equipped to spot and confront it properly. Each one of you has stepped in and invested your own time and effort into helping in different ways. You have expressed empathy for me and concern about what is happening in our denomination.

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The Great Sex Rescue: Gregoire, Sheila Wray, Lindenbach, Rebecca Gregoire,  Sawatsky, Joanna: 9781540901460: Amazon.com: Books

I remember when Mark Driscoll’s sex book came out and a few Christian leaders began voicing their concerns while many still looked the other way. He overshares about his sex-life, shames his wife, and teaches a disturbing, one-sided view of sex. Many still gave and shared their popular platforms with him. He remained a respectable pastor of his mega church. It wasn’t until after the other scandals broke—using church money to manipulate the NY Times bestsellers list for said book to rank on, bullying behavior, plagiarism, and using an anonymous profile to make lewd comments on blogs, such as calling women penis homes—that the respectable names in reformedish evangelical land decided it now costs more to keep him.

The crass marriage/sex book alone, or his atrocious preaching series on the Song of Songs, wasn’t enough. Maybe it’s because the book was not an anomaly in bestselling Christian publishing on sex and marriage. It just wasn’t as sophisticated as the others.

After years of working to help married couples in the church with their sexual union, Sheila Gregoire discovered that bestselling Christian books about marriage and sex were enabling abuse and really messing people up. When she read the popular Love & Respect, promoted by Focus on the Family, she was horrified by the complete dehumanization of women. So she set out with Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach and Joanna Sawasky to survey over 20,000 Christian women with over 130 questions about their marriages, sex lives, beliefs & messages they’ve been taught about sex. They also read and rated 13 of the most popular Christian books on sex and marriage, alongside of the top-selling secular marriage book, John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. They used a rubric they designed highlighting 12 elements of healthy sexuality. Two books scored neutral because they didn’t address the categories in their rubric of infidelity and lust, pleasure and libido, and mutuality. 7 of these books scored poorly. Love & Respect scored the worst at 0/48. In contrast, the secular book scored 47/48. The rubric questions are basic, I’ll give you a sample from each category (there are 12 in all):

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“Knowing

is the responsible human struggle

to rely on clues

to focus on a coherent pattern

and submit to its reality.”

Esther Lightcap Meek builds off of this definition of knowing, emphasizing each line separately in the five parts of her book Longing to Know.  I read it years ago and it has always stuck with me. Why? Because Meek writes about the wonder of knowing—it is literally stepping into new worlds of reality.

She references those Magic Eye pictures from the early 90’s as an illustration to explain how we struggle to find clues, focus on the coherent pattern, and then vector, or “lay out” through the clues to unlock the reality behind them. It’s a creative act. And yet it finds what’s already there.

Sadly, modernity has reduced the way we think about knowledge as just some facts that we arrive at. But Meek uncovers the whole act of wrestling, searching, gathering the clues, finding the patterns, and the risk-taking that knowledge involves in the seeking for it. It’s dynamic. When we come to truth, we find another picture of the world of reality. Submitting to this truth is likened to having the right key, unlocking the door, and entering that world. But it does not mean that we can always be certain. That’s part of the dance involved in our fallen, epistemic acts. This gives us the courage to make integrations of the patterns we find and sharpen one another. All of us long to know, we were made that way.

I also really enjoyed her book Loving to Know. Her covenant epistemology includes the necessary and rewarding sense of longing to engage reality—true reality. In it, she says:

Pay attention, not to the factoids, but to the longing. Start, not with what you think you know, but with what you long to know. Let longing shape what you think knowing is…Longing, I believe, is part of knowing.

This is exactly how studying the Song of Songs has been for me—like stepping into another world of eschatological imagination that searches for the gems of reality, propelling us forward to our telos. It’s absolutely thrilling.

So I was delighted to see that Dr. Meek was recently interviewed on the Two Cities podcast. She talks about the relationship between art and knowing, saying, “the act of discovery and the creative act are fundamentally the same thing. But it takes a kind of overhaul on your default of how knowing works to see that what your doing is actually of a piece—it’s actually a creative act and a coming to know. In modernity, reality gets reduced to the bits of impersonal information.” Then she blew my mind with this:

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The Great Sex Rescue: Gregoire, Sheila Wray, Lindenbach, Rebecca Gregoire,  Sawatsky, Joanna: 9781540901460: Amazon.com: Books

My husband and I have not been ones in our almost 24 years of marriage to read Christian marriage and sex books. We’ve read one—Tim and Kathy Keller’s. And now here I am, about halfway through reading Sheila Gregoire’s, along with Rebecca Lindenbach and Joanna Sawatsky, The Great Sex Rescue. I keep talking to my husband about it. Gregoire and her team thoroughly surveyed 20,000 Christian women about their sex lives. She juxtaposes their findings with the teaching in bestselling Christian books on marriage and sex. It is so revealing. I’m quoting some of the stats to my husband, such as how conservative religious women experience more pain during sex than the general population. I’m quoting from the bestselling Christian books, where the whole meaningfulness of sex is often bypassed to talk about men’s innate “needs,” where both man and woman’s satisfaction is placed on the woman, where it’s the married woman’s responsibility is to fulfill her man’s lust and up to pubescent young girls to divert their own friends’ fathers’ gaze! I wrote in the margin and spoke out loud to my husband, Thank goodness we didn’t read this crap!

And thank goodness for Sheila Gregoire. Her work intersects with my own in that as I am addressing the theological hazards in the complementarian movement and how it affects men and women as disciples, she is getting into the practical nitty-gritty of how it affects our sex lives. She has over 15 years of experience writing on this topic. Only halfway through, I see that she is not holding back. Good for her. She gets at the meaningfulness and intimacy of sex contrasted with what we are learning in the church. There’s even a chapter on “Bridging the Orgasm Gap” between men and women. Again, very revealing. Each chapter is loaded with graphs of statistics, practical check-ins for the reader, medical support, practical ways to talk about the content with your spouse and grow together, and a “Rescue and Reframing” concluding section, spelling out what should have already been settled knowledge.

Women as Slippery Slopes

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Well, that question could provoke a whole book of its own. One of the more common responses to me when I talk about how the Song of Songs is a book that ministers deeply to me, followed by either the awkward laughter or awkward silence, is the question about how one is even supposed to approach this book of the Bible. How do you read it? Is it linear? Is it a bunch of poems chopped up and compiled together? I think that many look at it as some sort of secret code about sex in which the key is lost.

If you’ve read any of my posts on the Song, you see both an allegorical and canonical approach. We can’t begin to understand sexuality until we get the point. Peter Leithart explains it like this:

Sex is allegory, and as allegory it is metaphysics and theology and cosmology. For Christians, sexual difference and union is a type of Christ and the church: How could an erotic poem (and in the Bible!) be anything but allegory? From the Song we relearn that poetic metaphor does not add meaning to what is itself mere chemistry and physics. Nor is erotic poetry a euphemistic cover for Victorian embarrassment. Poetry elucidates the human truth of human sexuality, and it seems uniquely capable of doing so. Only as allegory does the Song have anything to teach us about sex. Only as allegory can the Song play its central role in healing our sexual imaginations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The allegorical and canonical approach guide us in interpretation, but what is its literary structure? It’s a song. And it’s the Song of all songs! And it is brilliantly written. With all the differing analyses out there, I find David Dorsey’s[1] the most helpful. He builds off the work of J. Cheryl Exum and William Shae, as he finds the lyrics forming seven cycles with internal cohesion within each unit, each ending in a refrain or concluding line and scene shift.

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The Twitterverse had a good balk at a General Baptist pastor, Stewart-Allen Clark’s sermon where he goes on and on shaming married women for gaining weight, letting themselves go, looking brut and stinking, not being trophy wives (hey, he says not everyone can look like Melania Trump but at least go for the participation trophy), and blames them for their husband’s wandering eyes. His marriage counseling advice is: women, lose weight. He extols his friend’s “divorce weight” that he holds over his wife.

But let me commend the General Baptists for this: immediately, Clark resigned as moderator for a General Baptist Council of Associations, and it was announced that he is taking a leave of absence from pastoring his church, 1st General Baptist, and seeking professional counseling.

Thank you. That’s what needs to happen. These clearly weren’t whoops, I stuck my foot in my mouth and said something I regret kind of comments. In listening, it is clear how pervasive his views are, how he’s conditioned his congregation, and how far from an actual sermon that dehumanizing screed was. I hope that he resigns as a preacher of the word and leader of the sheep and seeks shepherding himself. I hope he repents and sincerely apologizes to his congregation.

But it all makes me think of the contrast. Pastors in my own denomination are also preaching and teaching abhorrent things about women. But it’s still out there. It’s not being challenged.

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