By LeRoy Lawson
City of Wrong: A Friday in Jerusalem
M. Kamel Hussein (translated by Kenneth Cragg)
Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1995 (first published in 1954)
The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are
Jenell Williams Paris
Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2011
Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community
Philip D. Kenneson
Downers Grove: IVP Books, 1999
Picture yourself in Jerusalem on Good Friday. Even better, imaginatively hover around and in and through the actors, big and small, in this most consequential drama. This is what Kamel Hussein does in City of Wrong. He takes us there. We overhear Pilate’s soliloquy, we listen in on the disciples’ debates, we see the astonishment on Mary Magdalene’s face when offered Jesus’ unconditional love—for her, of all people. Mix in the whole chorus of persons significant and otherwise (the disciples, of course, but also blacksmiths and shopkeepers and nobodies in particular) whose lives were impacted on that fateful day.
City of Wrong is not written by a Jewish believer. Or even a Jewish nonbeliever. Kamel Hussein is Muslim. His book, says the jacket blurb, “was the first book written in the Islamic world to make a thorough study of Christianity’s central theme—Christ’s crucifixion—and to show its profound significance for a devout Muslim.”
While the writing is frequently wooden and sometimes preachy, the tales this “outsider” tells are fascinating. Hussein respects Jesus. His perspective, often surprising, wakes up the comfortable Christian reader who thinks he has this Good Friday story down pat and has nothing more to learn about it. There’s much more to learn.
Jesus doesn’t appear in person. Hussein’s lesson is not so much about him as about the violent and confused humans who dispose of him, and unfortunately the characters in this story look too much like us.
Hussein is given to musing at length on things philosophical, and his thoughts are worth pondering. He returns again and again to the conscience. He believes what differentiates humans from animals is our ability to discern good from evil, and to feel remorse about and even repent of bad deeds. He is a fair man. He doesn’t believe only Muslims are virtuous. Or Christians.
In this crucifixion day drama, the actors don’t act as much as they think about acting. Some are motivated by fear of punishment, others by desires for heavenly reward, and still others by love—especially the love of Jesus.
“If humankind ever learned any lessons,” he concludes sadly, “they could find a wealth of them in the events of that day. But people never heed. They would have realized how the people of Jerusalem had quite evidently violated the truth, in this fierce encounter between the contrary forces of good and of evil, in which evil had overwhelmed the good and the true way had been worsted by the false. Truly they knew not what they did. Humanity is still in the throes of those forces and people still wander in error.”
This was (is) the darkest of Fridays. But in the darkness shines the Light that has come into the world. This Muslim author helps us to see that light more clearly.
A minister recently asked me to name the hottest topic today among young seminarians. The answer is probably issues related to sex and gender.
It’s also a topic of interest to people like me who grew up when public talk about such things was taboo. We can hardly believe what has happened in the Western world with its widespread support for gay marriage, the media’s aggressive promotion of the gay lifestyle, and the nonchalance of young people for whom there’s simply no problem here.
To gain some perspective, I turned to Jenell Williams Paris’s The End of Sexual Identity. A Christian anthropologist and Christian college professor, this happily married heterosexual mother explores the concept of homosexuality, a term that was only introduced to our language just over a century ago.
Her basic argument is we are mistaken when we lump together all persons with same-sex attraction. In fact, she says, to define persons by their sexuality is a mistake. Human beings are too complex to be labeled and dismissed so cavalierly. She herself does not want to be identified as merely a heterosexual. She calls that tag “an abomination.”
Here’s why: “The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality and sexual identity in general, is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. No pattern is perfect, but this one isn’t even close.”
To clarify: “The trouble with homosexuality is that, for today’s world, it is an outdated, derisive way of describing people with same-sex sexuality. . . . (Homosexuality) came from nineteenth century US medical researchers.”
This anthropologist studies what people do, not what they should do. She studies social constructions that we use to categorize—and then judge—people. It’s this rush to judgment she criticizes. “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity. For Christians, developing ethical understandings is always a task of cultural construction, but grounding sexual ethics in our humanity more than in contemporary sexual identity categories would be a starting point closer to God’s created order. Making this move comes at a cost to heterosexuals, however. It puts them in the game as players instead of umpires.”
While at Anderson University, the author worshipped at the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. She is now a member of the Brethren in Christ denomination. I mention this only to point out that she is not a member of a “liberal” church but a very conservative one. She takes church, Scripture, and the Christian ethic seriously. Seriously enough to want to talk about human sexuality as a devout Christian seeking to come to grips with an issue many devout Christians think is settled. In moving us beyond knee-jerk reactions to thoughtful consideration, though, she unsettles. I’m still processing.
Fruit of the Spirit
For Phil Kenneson, one’s spiritual life does not consist solely in retreats from the world nor immersion in Scripture and prayer, but in growing Christward by drawing on the power of the unified and unifying fruit of the Spirit.
Such fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, and their ilk) demands participation in community, not isolation. It does not grow in a social vacuum but requires the often irritating tensions of community. In fact, spiritual fruit introduces some tensions of its own. In our consumption-driven culture, what room is there for patience? Where power calls the shots, what can kindness do? And where it’s all about looking out for number one, why should I be gentle with the persons and forces out to get me?
Kenneson speaks like a prophet—but a reasoning one. He carefully analyzes the corrupting influences of contemporary society, but he doesn’t stop there. He trusts the influence of the Spirit working through a genuine church and receptive disciples to effect change amidst the corruption. Tough spirituality actually can empower the church and positively infiltrate the marketplace.
You can’t comfortably read this book. You won’t cheer a gross domestic product that impoverishes other nations. You won’t be able to make excuses for your church’s complacency. You will yearn for genuine joy, the kind that can’t be manufactured by industry or purchased with a credit card. You will no longer be fooled by greatness but inspired only by goodness. You will want—in your society, your church, and yourself—more of the Spirit.
Why? Because where the Spirit is allowed to move in, there grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. The author gives a chapter to each of these qualities, which makes this an ideal text for several weeks of group study and personal reflection.
Disclaimer: I wanted to read this book because Dr. Kenneson teaches at Milligan College, right across the street from my classroom—close enough to check out whether he practices what he preaches and preaches what he practices. He does.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.