Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Eunuchs, Sex & Agriculture

What’s a eunuch?  The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which many of us will hear read this coming Sunday, reminded me of my youthful ignorance of things such as eunuchs.  As a teenager being introduced to the depths of the bible, anything that had to do with something sexual was avoided by our old fashioned pastor.  Whatever eunuchs were was off limits, as were questions about harlots, women known to be sinners, adulterers, Moses’ natural power that had not abated, even in old age, and the like.  I recall that there was some vague reference to the sin of spilling one’s seed, which was an act reputed to also cause poor eyesight.  Being a tad on the naive side, it took me a while to catch on that my 20/800 vision made me a suspect for some reason.   But I digress.  What’s a eunuch?
Knowing the answer to that, knowing that he traveled on a very long and dangerous journey to worship at a temple into which he could not enter, is the key to understanding the good news of the kingdom that is near to all and not just to some.  The gospel message is, among other things, quite earthy.  I don’t think that troubled most people over the centuries in which the earthiness of living was an every day experience, and, therefore, not a subject to elicit juvenile twittering combining embarrassment with curiosity.  I don’t know when that came in, but it certainly found a voice in Victorian prudishness that infected the religiosity of America through at least the first two thirds of the 20th century.  My guess is that that faux prudishness one experienced in chruch had something to do with the mass exodus of baby boomers from it.   Remember, they were the members of the Sunday School classes so large that they nearly overwhelmed the capacity of local congregations.  What they learned in those years was such thin gruel, and so disconnected from what they saw going on all around them, that growing up and leaving behind their childish ways included leaving behind the religious trivialities they had learned in church.
In an odd twist, we religious leaders and teachers have become far more comfortable talking honestly about the earthiness of scripture as it relates to human sexuality, but we are losing ground in another arena - agriculture.
The bible is not just earthy about sex, it’s also earthy about agriculture.  History, wisdom, poetry and the gospel stories are saturated with agricultural settings and metaphors.  This Sunday some of us will have the vine and its branches.  Last Sunday we had the good shepherd.  Barley, wheat, tares, early rains, late rains, sheep, goats, asses, plowing, seeding, reaping, threshing, and more are all vehicles that carry the depth, breadth and weight of meaning required for a full understanding of what scripture has to offer. 
It’s not much of a problem where I live.  We are surrounded by agriculture.  Even we townies know at least something about the basics.  But we are a shrinking population amidst the many for whom the language of the farm is as foreign as Farsi.  In our urban sophistication we can handle sex without much ado, but what are we to do with grape vines?  Who even knows that the vine is not the fruit bearing tendril snaking its way onto a trellis like frame, but the root stock itself?  Who understands about grafting new varieties onto old stock?  Why is a lamb symbolic of anything other than cuteness?  Talk about irrelevant nonsense!  If that is what religion is about, why bother?
If I choose to preach this Sunday on Jesus’ self identification as the true vine, the few members of my little rural congregation have only to wander to the edge of town to be in the vineyards.  For my big city born and bred friends, a vine is highly problematic, and Jesus being the true vine is all but meaningless - unless.  Unless the preacher come teacher is able to impart enough information for the metaphor to make sense.  It means throwing out the thin gruel and cooking up some thick, rich porridge.
The solution?  Make ag-econ 101 a required introductory course in seminary?  Maybe not, but the language we use to guide nascent Christians into the language of the bible is way too important to forget about it. 

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking essay! As a child I did visit relatives who lived in small rural towns and kept chickens and a cow, but none was actually a farmer as a living, but I was charmed by the idea and wanted to study agriculture. In the two public high schools I attended which had FFA clubs and offered some basic introductory agriculture classes, I was not allowed to take them, because I did not live on a farm, and had no place to raise a farm animal of any type as a project(required). And the agriculture teachers advised me to forget about it, as there was no possibility for anyone not living on a rental farm or in line to inherit one ever to go into farming,as the start-up cost was even in the 1950s out of sight financially. So I just settled for a small garden here and there in cities, when I could. So I was saved from a life of toil, trouble and hardship for which I was not really suited anyway! Only in retirement have I been able to play at hobby farming, my romantic childhood dream--thank God! But I am grateful for all my useless knowledge of farming and animals!Dr B

Anonymous said...

Ironically, although both the Old Testament and the Gospels of the New are full of agrarian and pastoral imagery, the early Christian Church was mostly urban, as one can see from the Epistles of the NT. Only later did the Church start missionizing the rural areas, as is reflected in some of the terms used by Christians for those still clinging to their older practises: pagani (villagers), heathen (dwellers on the heath, the bushes Ger. Heiden). The country people kept their old customs and festivals even when they put a Christian veneer over them, and the Church often winked at that and made them part of its practice, e.g. Celtic Samein (god of the Dead) becomes All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day. The first day of the week (the day sacred to the Unconquered Sun-Sun Day) by decree of Emperor Constantine becomes a holiday, so that both Christians and Pagans could have a day off then, instead of the Jewish Sabbath (Saturn's Day). Sunday then starts to become a sacred day of the Resurrection, treated as a Christian version of a sabbath. (Romance Language speakers start the week on Monday so that Sunday will be the seventh day, but call Saturday Sabado in Spanish=Sabbath). "When everyone you know makes the same mistake, it becomes correct!" The earlier church had met regularly on Sunday,early or late, not really because "on the first day of the week the women discovered that the tomb was empty" but because they were not welcome in the synagogues on Sabbath and did not have any day off work,anyhow, and Sunday was as good as any day even before the emperor made it a holiday. Constantine tried for years to keep his pagan worship of the Sun while double-dipping with his new religion of the Son, as many of that time in the Church did with their old country cults. Dr B

Anonymous said...

In the earlier part of this essay, you made reference to the shy prudishness of your Lutheran Sunday School teachers about the sexual references in the Bible, such as to the case of Onan in Genesis "spilling his seed" on the ground (because he was unwilling to follow the custom of begetting a child by his widowed sister-in-law, as was later codified as a law in Deuteronomy, but implicitly forbidden by Leviticus!!) Dr. Sigmund Freud in his middle age ceased having any sexual relations with his wife, because the only method of birth control he knew was coitus interruptus,or early withdrawal, and he believed what was a common medical school teaching that it would lead to insanity! Though Jewish, he was an atheist, and did not believe that God would strike him desd, as Genesis says God did to Onan, but accepted a secular version, common at the time, that insanity would result,(now long rejected.) My own high school Baptist Bible teacher, Miss Hall, a fair-skinned red head of middle age, blushed visibly at this passage about Onan in Genesis (as she did at all such passages, which are common in the Bible), and refused any requests by her students for explanation! Once people, or at least many Protestants, were highly encouraged to read the Bible, all of it, and they must have had many unanswered questions as they read! Not just about what was meant, but what possible connection there might be with their Christian religion! Both the American Bible Society and the Gideons still encourage giving Bibles, but the Catholic Church once discouraged anyone from reading even the New Testament without educated guidance, and so opposed easy-to-read translations in vernacular languages (John Wycliffe got into trouble for it!). And the Church had good reasons for that policy! Dr B