Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Webb_08192014William J. Webb.  2001.  Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Toxic waste is a term once used in Washington to describe issues that could not be openly discussed without tainting the person discussing them.  High on the list of such issues were race, gender, and sexuality.  Hopefully, it is now possible to engage in reasoned conversation about these issues.  William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis clearly attempts to begin that conversation.

Introduction

Webb begins with a question and an answer.  The question is:  So how does a Christian respond to cultural change?  His answer is:  It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values;  it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters (22).  The tough part arises in distinguishing:  between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).   This is what Webb sees as the interpretative (hermaneutical) task.

Webb applies his hermaneutical framework primarily to 3 issues:  slavery, women, and homosexuality.  He picks slavery because he believes the issue to be settled within today’s church.  Clearly, the role of women and the issue of homosexuality are under active conversation—at least across denominations and, in some cases, within denominations.

Four Views on Women in the Church

Webb (26-28) defines these 4 positions as held on the role of women within the church:

  1. Hard/strong patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with an extensive power differential;
  2. Soft patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with a moderate power differential;
  3. Evangelical egalitarianism—mutual submission with equality of power between male and female; and
  4. Secular egalitarianism—equal rights and no gender-defined roles.

Three Views on Homosexuality in the Church

Webb (28) likewise defines 3 positions within the church on issue of homosexuality:

  1. Marital heterosexuality only—homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle for Christians;
  2. Covenant and equal-partner homosexuality—homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for Christians provided that the partners are equal-status, consenting adults, and the relationship is one of a monogamous, covenant, and lasting kind; and
  3. Casual adult homosexuality—homosexuality is an appropriate lifestyle for any member of society provided it involves consenting adults.

In laying out these positions, Webb is simply defining the field of inquiry.  He is not at least initially advocating for any one of these positions.  Near the end of the text, however, he identifies himself as an evangelical egalitarian on women’s issues and argues for a marital hetersexuality only position with respect to homosexuality.

Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic

An important contribution of Webb’s work is a concept that he calls as a redemptive-movement hermaneutic.  In defining this concept, he outlines a model:  X=>Y=>Z.  The X stands for the original culture;  the Y stands for scripture; and the Z stands for the ultimate ethic (30-33).  This model permits us to ask 2 important questions.  First, does scripture move beyond the cultures of surrounding nations in addressing an issue? (X=>Y)  Second, does scripture point to an ethic beyond that actually embodied in scripture? (Y=>Z)  These 2 questions allow us to isolate the redemptive movement implied in the text of scripture.  Webb uses this model to examine several scriptural passages that today sound bizarre, but which would have been at least slightly redemptive to the original audience.  One example was the taking of female prisoners as spoils of war:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Attitude about Ugly Texts

Webb (32-33) argues that this is clearly an ugly text in today’s culture [2], but in relation to the customs of ancient times was redemptive in its application under the X=>Y criteria.

Today’s application of the text would not follow the exact words prescribed in the text, but rather to observe the redemptive spirit of the text and draft an appropriately redemptive, modern policy dealing with female captives (33).  Webb describes an attempt to apply the exact words of the scriptural text in a new context as a “static” interpretation (36-38).  Ignoring the redemptive spirit of the text leads to wooden or misleading interpretations and may lead to the text being discredited in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.  Clearly, much more could be said about this redemptive-movement hermaneutic.

Organization

Webb writes his book in 8 chapters preceded by a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction and followed by a conclusion, 4 appendices, a bibliography, and a scriptural index.  The chapters are:

  1. Christian and Culture;
  2. A Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic;
  3. Cultural/Transcultural Analysis:  A Road Map;
  4. Persuative Criteria;
  5. Moderately Persuasive Criteria;
  6. Inconclusive Criteria;
  7. Persuasive Extracriptural Criteria;
  8. What If I Am Wrong; and
  9. Conclusion:  Arriving at a Bottom Line.

The foreword is written by Darrell L. Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary [3].

Assessment

Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals is a readable and engaging text that focuses on applying scripture rather than simply arguing over it.  It is gutsy for a writer to take on the ugly texts of scripture and to find both redemption and application in them.  Personally, my initial response was to reject cultural analysis because it lies outside the twin authorities of scripture and God’s direct revelation.  However, I realized that I was guilty myself of discounting or skipping over the difficult texts rather than engaging them.  In effect, I was already doing cultural analysis, just not employing a consistent method.  This internal struggle led me to reconsider Webb’s analysis.

I am sure that some readers will simply not be able to engage in conversation about politically incorrect topics, but I would challenge them to stretch their own views a bit for the sake of understanding scripture better.  Webb’s own words are helpful when he says:  I must thank our modern culture for raising the issues addressed in this book.  But our cultural only raises the issues…it does not resolve them (245).

Footnotes

[1] http://www.tyndale.ca/faculty/bill-webb

[2] This exact issue was in the news this past week in the Middle East war in Iraq as ISIS fighters rounded up women hostages to the horror of the onlooking world.

[3] http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock.

Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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May: Addictions Need not Enslave

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gerald G. May. 1988.  Addiction & Grace:  Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The goodbyes this week to beloved actor and director, Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014) place the specter of addiction and death in the public eye. This week it is heroin addiction but the drug of choice changes over time.  In a society that has trouble placing limits on personal freedom (boundaries) of any sort, the pain of addiction bites particularly hard because we all share a bit in the blame.

What is addiction anyway?

In his book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald May (June 12, 1940- April 12, 2005), a Christian psychiatrist specializing in addictions, defined addiction as:

Any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.  It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects (24-25).

May notes that true addiction has 5 characteristics:

  1. Tolerance,
  2. Withdrawal symptoms,
  3. Self-deception,
  4. Loss of willpower, and
  5. Distortion of attention (26).

On reading May’s description in 2011, I became aware of my own addiction—stress.  I loved my work too much—it had become an obsession—evidence of tolerance.  Taking time off away from the office was harder on me than the pounding stress—evidence of withdrawal symptoms.  I told myself that I was advancing my career—this was a self-deception.  I could not help myself; I had to work hard—evidence of loss of willpower.  Was I aware of it?  No—I was convinced that other people were the problem in my career advancement.

When I became aware of this addiction, I took it to the Lord in prayer and committed myself to practicing Sabbath rest.  May advises—the only cure for an addiction is to stop the cycle (177).  Not working on Sunday (not even for God) has freed up time for family; other interests; and self-respect.  I continue to feel the urge to work, but with God’s help my stress addiction is over.

What are you addicted to?

Notice that May’s definition of addiction talks about freedom.  May writes:

Free will is given to us for a purpose: so that we may choose freely, without coercion or manipulation, to love God in return, and to love one another in a similarly perfect way…addiction uses up desire…sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits.  Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry [idolatry is anything that substitutes for God] (13).

Psychologists talk about addiction as an attachment disorder.  In order to be free in any sense of the word, we need to be detached from our desires enough to regulate them (14).  This is why the first of the Ten Commandments reads:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV).

The other gods here are things that we become addicted to.  What the Bible is saying is that addiction is a form of slavery from which God can free us.  In my experience, freedom is harder than slavery for many people because they are enslaved to their passions—work, bad relationships, substances, expensive toys, compulsive sex, money, and so on.  My stress addiction is a typical case because our minds are rigged to facilitate habit formation—we all have addictions, albeit not all addictions are life-threatening (57).

Addiction and Grace is written in 8 chapters:

  1. Desire:  Addiction and Human Freedom.
  2. Experience: The Qualities of Addiction.
  3. Mind:  The Psychological Nature of Addiction.
  4. Body: The Neurological Nature of Addiction.
  5. Spirit: The Theological Nature of Addiction.
  6. Grace:  The Qualities of Mercy.
  7. Empowerment:  Grace and Will in Overcoming Addiction.

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by various notes.

Clearly, I have left out many of the details that May generously supplies.  Anyone struggling with addiction (or who cares about someone who does) will find this book a godsend.  I clearly did.

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