How Losing My Virgin-ity Strengthened My Faith

With Ash Wednesday fast approaching, I find myself reflecting upon my church upbringing.  You see, I was raised Catholic in Oklahoma.  Until Guatemala, it’s the closest I ever came to feeling like a minority.

For every Catholic in the sooner state, there are roughly five Baptists.  If religion were a basketball team in Oklahoma, Catholic would be the assistant trainer, taping ankles with rosary beads and working out sore muscles with a chrism oil rub down.

In fact, you are twice as likely to find someone calling themselves “non-religious” as you are to find a Catholic in Oklahoma.  And this is in a state that has seen its share of God-fearing moments.  Just think of it.  The Trail of Tears.  Check.  The Dust Bowl.  Check.  The Oklahoma City Bombing.  Double-check.  Still, even those claiming no faith at all outnumber the Catholics.

Because of this, I got used to feeling a bit outcast growing up.  Tested in my faith.  There were certainly peaks and valleys for this malaise.  The whole Lenten season leading up to Easter was perhaps the grandest of the peaks.

I clearly remember a trip to the grocery store on Ash Wednesday when I was eight years old.  I was perusing the cereal aisle, drooling over Cookie Crisp and Fruity Pebbles.  Unfortunately, the only cereals we were allowed to have in my house were those that resembled the floor sweepings from a cabinet shop.  Nutritious.  Full of fiber.  Tasteless.  As I reached for a box of Frosted Mini Wheats, I was trying to think of a way to lure mom to the dark, sugary side of breakfast.  Right then a woman approached me and tried to wipe the “smudge” off my forehead.

“Herman, I think this kid’s been playing in the barbecue pit?”

Rather than explain the ritual, which I really didn’t understand anyway, I acted like I had to pee and quickly walked away.

And then there were Lenten Fridays.  If you’re Catholic, this meant no meat.  Early on in my grade school career, the school system gave an honorary nod to Catholics and made every Friday a “fish stick day.”  Unfortunately, by third or fourth grade, that policy was withdrawn and I was considered a lunatic for trading my Little Smokies for an extra helping of green beans. This did, however, create an enormous amount of good will which I cashed in for choice seats on the bus.  In retrospect, many of the meat items in school cafeterias today would technically qualify as “soy slurry pressed and formed into meat-like shapes.”  I digress.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Catholic religion.  I’m not a practicing Catholic today, but I still catch myself making the sign of the cross after a prayer – especially when approaching a truly monumental situation.  My wedding.  The birth of my two children.  Preparing to grill a slab of baby back ribs.

I find the tradition and ritual of the Catholic faith to be a beautiful thing.  The smell of incense makes me nostalgic.  Gregorian chants calm my soul.  All of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the communion table fascinates me.  A priest teaching a Jesus 101 workshop back in college told me and a few other trivia-seeking Catholics that during communion, the bread and the wine actually become Jesus body and blood.  So much so, that it cannot be thrown away.   It must be consumed.  He recounted a story of church protestors, angry with something the Pope had done, coming forward to receive the bread and wine, and then spitting it out right there at the altar.

In response, he simply knelt down, picked up the remnants, put them in his mouth and swallowed them.

There are two key takeaways here.  First, this ritual and tradition holds deep meaning in the Catholic church.  Second, if you’re thinking of becoming a Catholic priest, read the job description very carefully.  There are more than few “gotcha’s.”

Upholding the rich tradition of Catholics never doing anything half-way,  fifty scholars, translators, linguistic experts, theologians and five bishops have spent the past 17 years revising the New American Bible, the text owned by U.S. Catholic bishops for prayer and study. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, a new edition of the Bible is coming out.  My guess is that you probably haven’t pre-ordered a copy at your local Barnes and Noble.  If you’re looking to update your library, you may want to make note.

The last edition was published in 1970, but there has been some significant research done since then, and the Catholics, wanting to stay current, have been poring over original manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archeological findings.  Sounds like quite an undertaking to me.  Their goal was to improve the accuracy and accessibility of the Bible.  So, based on the most recent information available, they have made some changes.

For instance, the previous version contains the word “booty,” which refers to treasure.  Noting that “booty” in today’s vernacular conjures up images of Jennifer Lopez’s abundant backside, they have now changed all references to “plunder” or “spoils of war.”  Also gone are the giggles from every kids’ Sunday school class.  Look for another revised version after Sir-Mix-A-Lot comes out with their comeback album titled, “I Like Big Plunders.”

Also changed is Proverbs 31:10.  The passage used to be titled “The Ideal Wife.”  Now, it’s called a “Poem on the Woman of Worth.” This change was made so women everywhere could see the Bible reflect the fact that they are measured on their own merits, rather than the perspective of their husbands.  I think Gabby will like that one.  I frequently tell her what an “ideal wife” should look like, and she promises to fulfill that role when I can take up the mantle of “ideal husband.”  This is highly unlikely to happen unless I can overcome my fear of rodents, and stop shrieking like a child when I accidentally walk through spider webs.

I’m not sure how you feel about all of this, but I’m OK with it.  Updating the Bible to reflect the times in which we live.  Personally, I encourage it.  Language is constantly evolving.  The original Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and arguably in the vernacular of the day.  One the people could best understand.  So, it stands to reason that we take a fresh look from time to time to assure that the original intent of the passages matches the words we now use to describe it.  But the biggest change in the 2011 edition has nothing to do with making the language up-to-date.

It has to do with accuracy.

And it’s a biggie.  Hold on to your Papal Tiara!

Isaiah was a prophet.  The great forecaster.  The predictor.  In today’s words, we Christians might call him the Al Roker of the Bible.  In Isaiah 7:14, he writes “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  We Christians point to this scripture as proof that folks knew Jesus was on the way.  It foreshadows the coming of Christ.  A once in a kabillion kind of miracle.  Tough to miss.  Spotting Jesus’ birth to a virgin mother is like spotting me as the only caucasian member of the University of Tulsa Gospel Chorus back in college.  I was always the one swaying in the wrong direction.  There’s no denying it.

But in the latest edition of the New American Bible, the Isaiah passage has been rewritten.  It now reads:

“the young woman shall be with child…”

Young woman?

A footnote in the new Bible provides a bit of clarity.  The Hebrew word “almah” which translates into English to mean “maiden” was later translated into the Greek word parthénos which translates simply as “virgin”. So, scholars say “almah” may, or may not, signify a virgin.  The research is inconclusive.

Wow.

Is this an important detail to anyone else?  Seems like a big one to me.  Isaiah predicting a young woman giving birth is like Al Roker predicting that it might rain, somewhere in the United States, sometime this week.  Kinda’ takes the “oomph” out of the prophesy if you ask me.

What is most significant to me is that the people who are responsible for this revision are the ones who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  Why would the bishops and Biblical scholars want to change something that might cause their flock to doubt what some see as a foundation of the Christian faith?  It seems like it would have been easy to let “almah” lie for another forty years.  Take it up in the next revision.  But they chose to do it now.  Make the change.  With conviction.

I’m left with a couple of potential responses.

I could fight it.  I could argue that the scholars are mistaken.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.  I could look for alterative translations.  I could even deny it.  Heck.  Even if they are correct, that doesn’t mean that Mary wasn’t a virgin.  It just means Isaiah wasn’t very detail-oriented.  The kind of guy who would forget your birthday.

But that’s the reaction of a defensive faith.  A faith that takes the Word at face value.  And defending the Word in such a way would mean I would still be making burnt offerings, swearing off shellfish, and owning slaves.  It’s a scared, stagnant faith without room for growth.

Or,  I could embrace the change.  I could question.  I could doubt.  I could wrestle with the faith that has sustained me for years.  I could use this doubt to spur me to an even deeper knowledge.  An even deeper understanding.  Go on the offensive.  Ultimately arriving at the point where I know I can never know it all.  Still being happy in that space.  For it is a space where faith is alive.  Where the Word moves and changes and transforms.

With all of the options before me, I think I’ll choose Door #2.  I’ll let the Living Word live.  Let it move and breathe.  Let it be part of a conversation rather than a passive voice.  It’s risky and confusing and hard to grasp.  But I think that’s what the Catholics intended.  Indeed, what God intended.

For a faith untested is really no faith at all.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “How Losing My Virgin-ity Strengthened My Faith

  1. I think you nailed it, Scott. Mazel Tov!

  2. Lisa

    Wow Scott. On this Ash Wednesday, living as a two timer YAV in Peru you made my day. You made me chuckle, but also gave me somethings to help me navigate a particular strand of evangelismo in the Andes Mountains that is closed off, judgemental, and aboslutist. Oh yeah and where Catholics are not quite Christian (what a crock!!). There is no living Word here (in this strand) so it seems. There is only what the pastor (seminary trained or not) as well as parents passes on generation to generation, and what white missionaries gave to them years ago. This is what the bible says, so this is what we do… I got a good chuckle out of the swearing off shellfish comment. I am inspired on how to use or would like to interject the eating of lechon or pork into my next sermon since chicharrones or fried pork chucnks are the plato tipico…hmmmm ideas abound as it is an often eaten dish here. I use the words particular strand to describe evangelsimo here in the Andes of Peru becasue while a majority of the evangelicos or Protestants here believe and practice their faith this way I have discovered pockets of people who live their faith, are ready to wrestle with texts and issues of justice, and they read and believe in a living and transformative Word. Thanks for making my day…I could on and on about this….doing work with local pastors and church leaders about reading the bible through the eyes of gender makes me give a special YAHOO! on the Proverbs verse,m and a wink wink of approval to Gabby…I wonder if the NRSV folks still call it the virtuous woman passage, I need to go look….I am going to shy away from the Isaiah 7 passage because I ddi not set the world on fire with my study of Hebrew in Seminary. It is what I would call a work in progress.

    • Lisa. Thanks so much for the post. Sounds so much like Guate! Even the platos tipicos. Not a fan of the chicharonnes… or the hard-core closed-mindedness either. Is it hypocritical to say that the only thing I am intolerant of is intolerance? Good luck with the Hebrew, and keep up the good work in Peru. I love seeing the updates on FB. Peace, sista’.
      -Scott

  3. Hey folks. A friend’s father, a retired minister, sent this explanation that shed ssome light on the situation. Long, but well worth the read. Thanks Jim Jr.! ******************************
    Thoughts on Isaiah 7:14

    Since Isaiah 7:14 has become a source of argument and debate, I will take Bible classes through Isaiah 7, have them read the story and look at the historical context.

    After King Solomon died, the nation of Israel was split into the Northern Kingdom, called Israel (and also called Ephraim) and the Southern Kingdom, called Judah.

    Isaiah 7 is set around 735-733 B.C. Ahaz is the king of Israel with his capital at Jerusalem, Pekah is the king of Israel with his capital at Samaria, and Rezin is the king Syria, Israel’s neighbor, with his capital at Damascus. (Isa. 7:1, 8-9)

    All conquering Assyria is coming and everyone is afraid. Rezin and Pekah have made an alliance to defend against Assyria (Isa 7:2). They want Judah to join in the alliance. Ahaz refuses so Rezin and Pekah are matching against Judah to replace Ahaz with a puppet king who will join the alliance.

    God sends Isaiah to Ahaz to tell him not to join the alliance and not to fear Rezin and Pekah (Isa. 7:3-4) who are called “the tails of two smoking firebrands” (KJV) or “two smoldering stumps” (NRSV). Rezin and Pekah will not succeed in overthrowing Ahaz. (Isa. 7:5-7)

    Ahaz is skeptical, corrupt, and does not put any real faith in God, so Isaiah gives him a prophetic sign. An “almah” (the Hebrew word) will conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14) Almah can mean either “young woman” or “virgin”, depending on the context of the passage.

    Isaiah goes on to promise that before the child is old enough to “know to refuse the evil, and choose the good” Israel and Syria will be “forsaken of both her kings”. (Isa. 7:15-16) A few years later, Assyria conquers Syria and Israel (see 2 Kings 16-17), fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. Syria fell first, and then Israel around 722-721 B.C. The prophecy was fulfilled in a dozen years, more or less.

    To make any sense in the context of the whole passage, Isaiah’s 7:14 was fulfilled during the lifetime of King Ahaz and prior to the fall of Syria and Israel. The “young woman” has to conceive some time near or not too many years after Isaiah delivers his prophecy to Ahaz.

    When the Revised Standard Version first came out some 50 years ago, people had a fit because it changed the familiar word “virgin” from the King James Bible, to “young woman”. The change made sense to the translators because that makes the most sense in the context of the passage, but people thought they were attacking the virgin birth. They were upset. They were convinced that “modern scholars are trying to destroy the faith”.

    The KJ and RSV passages can be compared here:

    http://www.biblestudytools.com/parallel-bible/passage.aspx?q=Isaiah+7&t=kjv&t2=rsv

    The virgin birth rests on New Testament passages in Matthew and Luke, not Isaiah. If more people had spent time reading the context of Isaiah 7, there wouldn’t have been such a fuss. Matthew is partly to blame, thanks to Matthew 1:23 which refers back to Isaiah 7:14.

    Matthew comes along 700 years after Isaiah 7 was fulfilled and re-applies Isaiah’s prophecy to Jesus, using the “virgin” definition of the Hebrew word almah. That makes some sense because the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) translation of the Hebrew scriptures into the Greek language was widely available at the time and was used in the early Christian church. The LXX translators took the Hebrew word almah in Isa 7:14 and translated it with the Greek word παρθένος (parthenos) which means “virgin”. To this day, scientists use the word parthenogenesis, which comes from the same Greek word.

    You can read the whole LXX Isaiah 7 passage here, in Greek:

    http://www.septuagint.org/LXX/Isaiah/7

    Still, Matthew has been accused of playing fast and loose with Isaiah 7, and not without reason. Any well informed Jew of the time (which Matthew appears to be), should have known that the prophecy was fulfilled 700 years earlier with the fall of Syria and Israel to the Assyrians – not in the time of Jesus.

    But the possibility has been raised that Isaiah came to have a second understanding of the prophecy at the center of chapter 7. Israel/Ephraim/Samaria, and the Syrians show up again in a prophetic warning in Isaiah 9, and so does the birth of a child.

    “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Isa. 9:6-7).

    This refers to an event of far greater significance than a child born in the time of Ahaz. Has the birth of a child to some mother in Judah in Isaiah’s time, given rise to a new and expanded prophetic vision? Or are the child in Isa. 7 and the child in Isa. 9 totally unrelated (not to mention the child in Isa. 11)?

    Make of it what you will. If, in Isaiah’s mind, Isaiah 7 had everything to do with what was going on then and nothing to do with the distant future 7, so be it.

    But it is clear that Matthew is convinced that Isaiah 7:14 has taken on a wonderful meaning, and maybe a totally new meaning. In Matthew’s own time, a virgin has conceived and brought forth a son and called him Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

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