Born Of A Virgin? It happened a lot back then

I posted this 2 years ago today and thought it might be fun to revisit. 

As Christians we confess that Jesus was born to a virgin.  Some people doubt the accuracy of that – but they may not realize that it was not that uncommon back then.

Here are just 10 people born of a virgin in the ancient world: 

  • Buddha
  • Krishna – born without a sexual union, by “mental transmission” from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki, his mother.
  • Odysseus
  • Romulus
  • Dionysus*
  • Heracles – Son of a god (Zeus)
  • Glycon – son of the God Apollo
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Horus

One theory is that when somebody who led a deeply impactful life died, those who wrote about them later would attempt to say something special about them. One of the ways that they could do that was to say something extraordinary about their birth. It was a way of that there was something significant, even about they way that they were conceived.

Sometimes it was that they were born to people that were really old (past the age of child-bearing age).

Think of Issac born to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament or John the Baptist born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New (Advent).

Now, If somebody wanted to take the origin of their hero up a notch, they could say that there was no human dad … it was a god!  (like Zeus)

This is why some think that Jesus’ autobiographers took it up even one more notch! Not only did a God not have sex with women … there was NO sex at all!

 Now some say “yeah, lots of people were said to be born of a virgin … but Jesus actually was.”

This is where the problem starts. As best as I can discern, there basically three ways to approach the problem: physics, meta-physics or linguistics. 


Some people take an approach that is so certain that even science itself would be proved wrong. This usually comes up around issue like the Shroud of Turin (the cloth Jesus was buried in). I once heard a very confident person say that if we did DNA test on the blood on the shroud it would show that Jesus was fully human with 46 pairs of chromosomes – only instead of 23 from the female mother and 23 from the male father – Jesus would have 46 human ones from Mary.

I find this problematic for the same reason that I do not believe in the super-natural. It concedes the rules of the games to science (reductive naturalism) then tries to fill in the gaps with God.  That is a losing game-plan if ever I heard one.


Other people try to get around the whole reductive scientific debate by saying “Look, if God could make the world in 6 days out of nothing, then what is to make a virgin pregnant?  God does whatever God wants to do and who are we to question that?”

I am not a big fan of this approach either. It seems to say that revelation doesn’t have to report to reason and that God can not be evaluated on any reasonable standard conceived of by humans.

It seems just a short leap to say that God can elect who God wants for salvation God can pick favorites if that is what ‘He‘ wants to do.

It seems to retreat into the silo of ecclesiastic isolation and unaccountability. I think we have to look a little deeper ask some bigger questions.


This is an interesting approach that some in the post-liberal camp or comparable schools of thoughts might take.

The basic line is that it’s not the physics or meta-physics of the virgin birth that matters, its the way that it impacts us as people and forms us as a community. The importance of the language found in the gospels has to do with how it functions for us as a community and tradition.

Some folks don’t like this linguistic approach because it seems like theologically ‘thin soup’ to them. They look at the formulations that are quantified in the early creeds and they make definite and literal assumptions about what is behind them.

I am however nervous that all of this controversy is simply because we don’t know how to read a gospel. It’s like when we get sucked into debates about talking snakes in the garden of Eden or trying to prove scientifically how a man like Jonah could stay alive in the belly of a whale for 3 days and not be eaten by the stomach acid (or something).

It would be the equivalent of people 1,000 years from now arguing that we actually thought there was a place called Mudville and that a man named Casey was literally up to to bat.  It is because we don’t know how to read the genre of literature.

Jesus was born of a virgin – we confess that by faith, it is affirmed in our ancient creeds and it functions in our community to form us as people.    



* I even found one internet source that claims Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.


F is for Fideism or Why What We Believe Really Matters

Fideism is one of the most alluring, and thus, potentially dangerous developments on the theological landscape in our lifetime.

Fideism: The view that matters of religious and theological truth must be accepted by faith apart from the exercise of reason. In its extreme, fideism suggests that the use of reason is misleading. Less extreme fideists suggest that reason is not so much misleading as it is simply unable to lead to truths about the nature of God and *salvation.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 552-554). Kindle Edition.

Fideism has been around for a long time but it has taken on a new tenacity recently.F-Fideism

The 19th Century was a tough one for ‘reasoned faith’. Those bastions that survived into the 20th Century were not left unaltered. In fact, since WWII the effect of those descended from who Paul Ricoeur dubbed ‘The Master of Suspicion’ – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx … and some add Darwin – has grown and intensified.*

Part of ‘reasoned faith’ is that it had to adjust and modify. It had to account for new data (scientific and sociological) and, more importantly, it had to stop playing by its own rules.

The rules of engagement changed. Faith no longer got a free pass. The ‘church’ was no longer running the uni-versity. Fields like science had grown up since the Copernican revolution was no longer afraid of the church and began to act like the were running the show now.

Modern christianity had to choose whether to

  • Flee
  • Fight
  • or Adjust-Adapt-Evolve

I have written about this as modern christianity’s temptations.

A subtle form of this impulse toward fideism is simply to speak of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisterium”. Science and reason take care of their areas and faith takes care of its area.

Those who take this impulse further retreat into what Wittgenstein would call ‘private language games’. They take on a formal defense of the given-ness of faith say that faith doesn’t have to be reasonable. Those two things are just speaking different languages and that science of reason doesn’t even have the ability to understand what faith is doing. That is why neither can even provide a critique let alone a correction. Religion is thus except from an investigation-integration from outside.

I would argue that what we believe in private has massive implication for how we participate in the public arena.

We can see this battle line in the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court.

Let me give an example from history – courtesy of another ‘F’ word in our pocket dictionary: filioque. A Latin term literally meaning “and the Son,”

The addition of this phrase by the Western (Latin) branch of the church in the in the 6th to the 4th Century creeds – without the permission of the Eastern churches – would eventually lead to the schism of the two groups in the 11th Century.
This schism is notable enough but 500 years later, in what would become colonial missions by western europeans, the issue had real consequences. As both Catholic and Protestant missionaries sailed around the world to convert native populations, the filioque clause would answer a significant question.
Could the Spirit of God be at work ahead of the missionaries arrival? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The Spirit proceeded not just from the Father (and thus potentially outside of the work of the Son) but ‘from the Son also’. It was believed then that the work of the Spirit followed (proceeded not preceded) the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

There were minority schools (some Jesuits) who disagreed – but they were subsequently reprimanded.

Some may hear about the filioque clause and think “how would we even know who proceeded when? And how exactly are three people ‘one God’ anyway? This is all just speculation and minutia – like angels dancing on the head of the needle!”

Speculation it might be. But both in history and in our present societal unrest what folks believe in private really does impact how that participate in public.

This is why we have to care about fideism. I understand the desire to preserve the past and stake out ones territory for the given-ness of the tradition. It is a way of protecting what is deeply valued and – let’s be honest – in grave danger.

Those who are attracted to fideism look at the evolution of their religion and the disappearance of treasured practices and think “I don’t even recognize this contemporary mutation as the same thing that we inherited from those who came before!”

… and that might be true. But , as I am arguing in the series, we live in a world come of age and The Faith both needs to and is bound to change.
* another way of saying this is to list the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and science.


10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101


Greg & Tripp Chatting

CEM47354539_129436297782Tons of people that are ‘religious’  would be shocked if they just took a religion 101 class.  The divide between the academic study of religion is so huge that the experience of many students in their first religion class is disorientating.  I don’t think this is because religion professors hate religion and want to ruin people of faith’s confidence.  Largely it is evidence of just how poor our religious communities educate their members.  In this episode I am joined by Greg Horton, ex-pastor and undergrad religion professor in Oklahoma to look of  a list of 10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101.  Well we get through half of it in this episode.  Next week we will finish

Greg Horton was one of the inspirations behind starting the podcast.  I have stalked him online for a long time and then we got to have some fun in person on my visit to Oklahoma.  It was turned into this popular episode of the podcast.  Then he came back on the podcast to share 10 Dirty Secrets About Being a Minister.  Way back when he had a podcast called ‘the Parish’ on the wired parish podcast network. Back then he was an emergent Christian and has since left the building. Throughout his journey I have loved following his blog,hearing about his undergrad religion and ethics students, and thinking through some of the serious criticisms he has leveled against the church. Plus he also does some wine reviews.


Hold God Loosely – Like A Lover

Fun title … but I’m serious. Yesterday, when I suggested dropping the ‘the’ as a litmus test, I mentioned that we need to revisit the way that we hold our faith.

Convictions about God and our religious experiences can be very powerful. As both a minister and an academic theologian I have given most of my life to this idea.

It dawns on me however that sometimes the way we hold those convictions can be more significant than the convictions themselves. What we do with our religious experiences can be more impactful than the actual experiences.

 Let me use an analogy.  Relationship can be tricky. For friendship, romance, siblings, parenting, even marriage I have noticed an odd sort of truth:

People are at their relational best when they are fully available to the relationship but not completely dependent on it.

There is an art to holding a treasure loosely. If one holds it too tightly it can actually warp and even endanger the prized item.
I am able to be a good friend when I can enjoy the friendship but in way that I would still be OK if it went away. I know this is kind of a dark thought but …

I am the best version of myself as a spouse when I hold my lover loosely. The tighter I hold them – the more I need them – the less available I am to participate in the marriage in a healthy and mutually beneficial ways.

 Call it a relational paradox. Call it a delicate balance. Call it a damnable balancing act. 

The more I need my friend or spouse to do this or that for my happiness, the less I am able to both be there for them and to enjoy them as they are.

Believing in God and participating in religious experience is the same way.


I believe in a personal god. I act as if that is true. I want that to be true.

I need, however, to participate in that conception in such way that I would be OK if it were not. If, in the end, it turns out that ‘god’ is merely the ground of being that gives rise to all existence – or a benevolent force – or our conception of the greatest good … my faith wasn’t in vain.
The reality is that if I would be devastated that my conception of God turned out not to be true, I participate in my religion in a way that is not best for the world and my view. I need it too much.

This is the beauty of perhaps.

If I am unwilling to say ‘perhaps’ I will be too heavy handed, dogmatic, inflexible, and closed minded.


This comes up sometimes when people hear a new idea and are immediately resistant. I will ask them why they recoiled so strongly and they will often tell me about an experience they had.  I acknowledge that they had that experience … my question is about how they interpreted that experience. giant-jenga
The problem comes when they need that exact interpretation to be true. They feel like you can’t move even one Jenga piece or the whole thing is in danger of coming down. At that point we simply are not free explore other ways of looking at it. Perhaps that will come down the road.


When I run this idea past my PhD friends I get to use fun phrases like epistemology, phenomenology and narrative frameworks. 

 Today I just want to put an idea out there: 

If, god forbid, I were to lose my spouse and I could not go on … I am not free to participate in this relationship in ways that are best for the relationship.

So it is with religion. If I need my conception of God to be 100% true, then I am not free to be in my religious views the way that are most nourishing and helpful for my religion.



The Historical St. Nick, the White Santa, Marxist Pope, & More: Christmas Special w/ Adam English

AdamEnglish2012_2Santa & Jesus aren’t white, Christmas isn’t about Capitalism, the Pope isn’t a Marxist leftist, the Christian Calendar is a hardcore form of resistance, and you find out that Roger Olson’s own student turned Tripp into a Process theologian.  st-nicholas-of-myraThat is just a bit of what is in store for you in this special Christmas episode!

Tripp planned on just getting a TNT segment out of his chat with Adam… then they just kept talking… and it turned in to a Christmas present for all the Deacons.

Dr. Adam English, author of The Saint Who Would be Clause and Remixing Theologyis professor of Religion and Philosophy at Campbell University.  He has been on the podcast before discussing St. Nick & giving us a little taste of Post-Liberal\Conservative theology.
*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***

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TNT: Letters Edition

A cast of two halves! In the first half Bo and Tripp respond to 3 letters from listeners.

Then we get a call with Micky Jones about choosing a seminary (43rd minute) – and when we come back for the 4th and final letter things get a little rowdy.  It turns out the resurrection is a topic that brings some important distinctions between the nerds.

Here are some resources that are mentioned on this episode.  tntpcsubad

How to read the Bible by Kugel

Chalice BIble Commentary series

How to take the Bible seriously but not literally by Borg

The Everyone series by N.T. Wright

Exodus by Fretheim

a mother’s lament

Evangelical defense of same sex

Elizabeth Johnson Barrel Aged

Triune Atonement by Sung-Park

Saved from Sacrifice by Heim

The Non-violent Atonement by Weaver

Contemporary Christologies by Schweitzer

Cross & Covenant by Larry shelton

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***

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Books You Will Need In The New Year

As long as you are Christmas shopping, you might as well pick up some resources that will be helpful in 2014! books1

In early 2014 we have an Eco-Theology series called “HomeBrewed Grown Christianity” all about-earth care and lovin’ God. It will be a 5 part series with a TNT follow-up will be the final (6th) in the initial run.

Episode 1: Leah Kostamo Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community   Kindle ($9.99) Paperback ($17.99)

Episode 2: Matthew Sleeth Serve God Save The Planet , The Gospel According to the Earth & 24/6 about Sabbath. (Kindle $2.99)

Episode 3: Jennifer Butler is part of the new Christian Earthkeeping emphasis at George Fox Seminary. She is co-author of the upcoming book On Earth As In Heaven due out in November.

Episode 4: Randy Woodley with  Shalom and the Community of Creation: an Indigenous Vision  


You are also going to want to pick up Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit by Grace Ji-Sun Kim – whose HBC interview comes out this week.

We aslo have interviews coming up with Bruce Reyes-Chow author of But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race and Carol Howard Merritt about her books Reframing Hope and Tribal Church.

You might want to get ready for our special series on Practical Theology by picking up Greenhouses of Hope edited by Dori Grinenko Baker.

We have also been notified on good authority (by the author) that The Insistence of God is coming out on audible!!!   Get the Kindle edition or paperback to follow along.

OH!  Don’t forget about the upcoming 2014 interview with our favorite liberation theologian Joerg Rieger –  Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence (New Approaches to Religion and Power). It shall be EPIC.

All in all it looks like there is something here on the list for every theology nerd in your life!    I will also ask Callid & Tripp if they have a couple of suggestions …


Oh Lord! You can’t say ‘Oh’ instead of ‘Lord’? (nature of language)

On the TV show ‘The Voice’ last night, the final 8 contestants did a rendition of the popular hymn  “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”  The controversy came, not because they were singing a religious song but because the producers of the show changed a word – an important word. the voice

They swapped out “Lord” for “Oh” – a sort of musical place-holder (at worse) or an emotional sentiment (at best).

As all things in the 21st century are prone to do, it blew up on the Twitter-verse. We live in what Deborah Tannen calls The Argument Culture where things are not just oppositional but adversarial.

I find this stuff fascinating.

Whether you take Nancey Murphy’s 2 pronged approach in Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism or George Lindbeck’s 3 tiered approach in The Nature of Doctrine – what you can not get away from is that your view of language is deeply impactful not just of your opinions but of your very experience of the world. I would add especially religions ones.

There are several ways this conversation could go:

One might question the very use of the word “Lord” in the 21st century. We don’t have Kings and Lords and commoners any more. The notion of referencing the ‘Lord’ is not just antiquated but indeed outdated. Some might even point to the abolition of slavery as a reasons to move on from this language.

Another might focus on concepts like ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’. I, personally, think it is a good thing that people still take the Lord’s name in vain – no one takes Zues’ name in vain after all.

Some, however, want to focus on the idea that ‘taking the name in vain’ is not simply using God’s name to curse but attaching God’s name to things to which God does not belong. Case in point would be Donald Rumsfeld’s use of Bible verses on the cover of war briefings for President Bush.

Still another approach would be questioning the very need to address deity. The question here is that if there is a supreme being in the universe, don’t you think that she/he/they/it would know about something and the intention behind it even if their name was not invoked?  Prayers, for instance, make it to the ears of God even if someone does not say “God” first. You would think that a God would hear those prayers regardless if someone got the letter on the envelope correct.

It needs to be said though that there are many who believe exactly that! In issues of salvation one needs to use the specific name of Jesus or it does not count. God is usually believed to be bi-lingual so Spanish speakers can use the alternative pronunciation of Jesus. Critics would point out that neither Jesus nor the apostles spoke English but that is for a different day …

This also relates to the sacrament of Baptism. Many controversies and even schisms have centered on in whose name you were baptized. The formulation matters to this crew! And if you didn’t get it right you will need to be re-baptized or it didn’t count. I have been asked by many people if I baptize in “Jesus name only” or “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.  I have subsequently been told by both groups that I am doing it wrong and that the people I baptized are not really baptized.


Which brings us back to the Voice controversy. It is permissible to say ‘Oh’ instead of ‘Lord’ during a hymn?

I am not so much interested in offering an answer here as I am to look at how people’s view of language impacts their approach to such issues.

If you believe language is representative, then you will say that these symbols (in the case l-o-r-d)  represent that which they reference. Getting that right is essential because otherwise you are talking about something else.

If you believe that language is expressive, then you will say that language is not univocal and only expresses that which it wishes to reference. Language is both inexact and it is mutable.

Believing that language is univocal (representative) or equivocal (expressive) deeply impacts both how you respond to controversies such as changing the words of a hymn and what kind of internal permissions  – or orientation – you have when you approach matters of religion.

I would love to hear your thoughts about the issue of language in religion. 


Reclamation, Religion and Consumerism’s Bricolage: in conversation with Philip Clayton

A couple of weeks ago I had a very interesting conversation with Philip Clayton. Several of us went out for lunch after the High Gravity session on Religion & Science. We were at a restaurant where the walls were decorated with a busy collection of reclaimed signs, old pictures and repurposed trinkets.

Dr. Clayton was across the table from me and at one point I look up to notice that above his head was a sign that read ‘Holy’ on one side and ‘Holy’ at the other end. The words ‘Holy – Holy’ were framing either side of his head. IMG_2884

I tried to come up with something clever to say, scouring my memory for some passage from the Hebrew Bible or the book of Revelation to tweak. The window of opportunity closed because the conversation was quite intense. That morning the topic had been ‘Science & Religion’ and now we had expanded it to ‘Religion & Society’ – or more specifically to ‘Church & Culture’.

The conversation intensified and it became clear that neither Dr. Clayton nor Tripp was too happy with my cynical take on consumer mentalities when it comes to consuming religious experiences within a capitalist framework.

At one point I said “it is like that sign behind you: it’s not like the holy is absent from the space and all the activity that happening here – it’s just that it blends in and goes unnoticed in the midst of all the bricolage that it melts into.”

Somebody had reclaimed that wooden sign. There is a story behind it – there might have even been more to it (I wondered if it used to have a 3rd ‘Holy’ further down the line that had been lost).

But that is my point! In any gathering there are going to be those (like us at that table) who think that what is happening is legitimate, sincere, authentic, important and worth organizing your life around. The congregation is also going to be largely made up of those who are consuming a religious experience – and it is financially worth about the same amount as a movie, a meal, a game or a show.*

I will go even further: this is my great hesitation with those who want to ‘go back’ or ‘conserve’ with their religious participation. This impulse was never more evident to me than when I began interacting with those were into Radical Orthodoxy or with evangelicals who had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. The ‘zeal of the convert’ can be a telling element when it comes to the anti-modern or counter-modern impulse.

An incongruity is exposed in the counter-modern impulse of these conserving movements. Never mind for a moment that often what is being conserved is born out of a patriarchal model – set that aside for a second.

I will attempt to make this in 4 succinct points:

  1. You do not live in the 14th or 16th century.
  2. You do not think like someone in a previous century.
  3. You do not engage in the rest of your week as someone in a previous century.
  4. You chose, as a consumer within a capitalist framework, to participate.

Those four things signal to me that even the most sincere, authentic, devout, and thorough engagement – whether a Pentecostal, Evangelical, Orthodox, Anglican, RO, Catholic, Mainline or Congregational expression – must account for the ubiquitous consumerism within which we all are saturated.

Dr. Clayton rightly said that I while I had a good point I was proceeding in far too cynical a manner with it. He is correct of course.

My aggressiveness is born out of a deep concern. What we say the church is about – what we believe the very gospel to be – is so vital and so needed in the world today, that we can not afford to ‘play pretend’ about previous centuries and blindly participate in consumerism all the while trumpeting the virtue of our chosen ecclesiastic community.**

The danger, in my opinion, is that religious communities will become nothing more than decorations on the corner of a neighborhood or one more option at the mall food-court. 

For christian believers, the holy is all round us. We can not afford for it to disappear among the bricolage nature of our hyper-advertised media-saturated existence.

The gospel, at its core, is incarnational. Our central story as Christians is flesh and blood in a neighborhood. The whole project is contextual – it only happens in a time and a place. We can never escape that. That is why romantic notions of past centuries or early manifestations can be dangerous distractions and fantastical facades.

We can’t afford to fade into the bricolage. IMG_2886


* plus it usually comes with free babysitting. 

** Some might object that they have not chosen but rather have ‘stayed’. I would argue that they did within the consumer’s capacity to do so. 


TNT bonus track: Young People & the Church

In this bonus track Bo chats with Micky Jones about the now infamous Rachel Held Evans post on CNN Religion about young people leaving the church.MP9004065481-196x300

Then Bo and Tripp chat about what the topic means as youth pastors at Mainline churches.

These two conversation were originally recorded earlier this summer as part of a bigger conversation that never came together … but instead of just getting rid of the audio, we wanted to use your responses to frame a future episode of the TNT.

Please comment on this post or use the SpeakPipe on the homepage to let us know your thoughts!


*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***

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