Free Audio Now Available – 2016 Lydia Symposium

Valerie Hobbs with Mark Garcia

When I returned home from the Lydia Symposium in September, my husband came to collect me at the airport, and we spent the hour and a half drive home talking through the events of the weekend. That evening, I sent a summary of the weekend to a friend who could not be there and told him that I would struggle to write about the event without talking about my personal history. Since then, I have written and rewritten my summary of the first Lydia Symposium, each time eventually deleting it all and starting again. It has proven extremely difficult to do justice to what was genuinely a significant turning point in my life.

Against the backdrop of the still prominent patriarchal culture within the modern Christian church, considering the growing body of evidence that such a culture potentially empowers the abuse of Christian women, and in light of the many pressing questions facing Christians regarding gender and sexuality, we held our inaugural Lydia Symposium.

This inaugural Symposium featured lectures by Drs. Rebekah Josberger (Multnomah University), Mark Garcia (Greystone Theological Institute), and myself (Sheffield University and the Lydia Center). The subject matter ranges rather widely, perhaps more widely than one might expect from a Center focused as we are on the academic research and discussion of gender, marriage/divorce theory, children, and family. Here you will hear about the nuances of Torah in relation to righteousness, the significance of discourse about divorce in sermons, Matthew’s use of Hosea, the beauty and richness of God’s norms, with questions and suggestions pulled from biblical studies, theology, history, ethics, and linguistics.

The weekend began with Dr. Mark Garcia’s talk on Friday evening entitled Just Joseph: Mary, Marriage, and Matthean Mercy. Mark spoke about righteousness as mercy, the significance of Joseph acting to cover what he believed to be Mary’s shame, his act not to expose her but to take the burden of potential shame on himself.

Mark’s second talk was after lunch on Saturday, entitled, Are Women Safe in the Church? Women, Safety, and the Samaritan. He focused our attention on John 4 and the account of the woman at the well. He discussed the significance of Jacob’s well, the ambiguity regarding why this woman had five husbands (noting the common interpretation that this was due to her own adultery) but the convincing interpretation that she was very likely rejected unrighteously by her various men, and perhaps because she was barren. And then the spread of the Gospel through her, the water of life springing up within and out of her, to the villagers. Her barrenness healed. I found Mark’s work not only thorough and honest to the text but deeply moving. Are women safe in the church? I encourage you to listen to Mark’s assessment.

Dr. Rebekah (Becky) Josberger’s first talk on Saturday was entitled Torah as Protector of the Vulnerable and centered on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Becky began her talk with common mistakes we make when reading Torah. She focused, for example, on problems in assuming that God’s law describes something idyllic, a means for living in ideal circumstances. Instead, she argued, its purpose is to give us guidelines for living in a broken world and to foster a relational knowledge of God. In her words, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, an instance of Torah,

is drawing a picture to shape a paradigm that is to guide broader attitudes and behavior – behavior that reflects Yahweh’s own righteous character to our community and to the watching world.

Becky took us through the biblical text and through similar texts of the period, arguing that rather than a passage about divorce,

The primary issue in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not the divorce, but the abuse that the divorce represents.

Particularly moving was Becky’s reframing of Malachi 2 in light of her convincing scholarship on Deut. 24. Becky took up a common misinterpretation of this passage, “You are offensive because you are divorced” and recast it as, in context, a message of God’s hatred of the mistreatment of the vulnerable.

Becky’s second talk later in the day was a kind of meditation on Torah, again not as a means of deriving “specific, limited, outward behavioral responses,” but rather, Torah as God using story to teach us about Him and how to be like Him.

I delivered my talk entitled The Discourse of Divorce on Saturday morning. I began by situating my corpus of sermons within a broader context, summarizing my philosophy of language, and then delving into the sermons themselves. I discussed evidence for a discourse of rules and evaluation, a discourse of polarization, a discourse of violence, and a discourse of female exclusion.

At the end of the day, in closing the symposium, I reflected on the ways in which the various talks worked together. My work investigated how pastors talk about divorce in the Church and the extent to which it is problematic, even dangerous. Providentially, the message from Mark and Becky was this: Despite the destructive messages you may encounter, they do not represent who you are before God. They do not represent who God is.

Our first symposium was sparsely attended, but this fostered a friendly and communal atmosphere. During breaks, we moved from the main conference room to a smaller upstairs table, where we talked and shared experiences, reflecting on what we had heard and what it meant for each of us.

The talks from our first symposium may be accessed for free here (scroll to the bottom section of the page), and we encourage you to begin with Mark’s “Series Introduction”. Almost all of the lectures are provided in audio form. But one of the lectures, my own, included visuals, so we have provided only this one in video  (i.e., audio plus slides) format. I have also provided a personal video introduction to my talk which you will see at the beginning of my lecture.

As noted in the lectures themselves, this audio is being provided free of charge in order to spread the word about the kinds of things Greystone is doing. If you find any of the talks helpful, please feel free to share them with as many as you desire, but please also consider making a donation to Greystone to help cover the considerable costs of holding this event and to help the Center continue its work.

Finally, please note that the talks at our first Lydia Symposium were scholarly, in keeping with our mission. Our aim is to examine important questions facing women in the church in a careful, serious, and thorough manner. If we are to speak with authority, if our resources are to effect change, we must handle with rigour the texts we encounter.

Thank you for listening. We pray you will be encouraged, challenged, and invigorated in service of Christ, His Church, and the world.

The Lydia Symposium 2016: A word of thanks

John 4: The Woman at the Well

This week (I hope), I will be writing a summary of and reflection on Lydia’s first symposium last weekend. In advance of that, we at the Lydia Center owe a great debt to those who attended, listened, asked engaging questions, offered suggestions, shared stories, and laughed, talked, and cried with us. Some attended at great inconvenience to themselves, and we are grateful for your time, effort, and enthusiasm. In connection with that, in the next few weeks, we plan to publish a post from one of our attendees, whom we hope will take us up on our offer to do so.

Thank you also to those who prayed and donated to make this event possible and fruitful. Our work is not possible without you.

We also want to thank our special speaker Dr. Becky Josberger, whose talks were as engaging as they were scholarly. We hope to facilitate the dissemination of her very important work to as wide an audience as possible.

Finally, please note that we video recorded all of the talks and will be making those available as soon as possible to those who could not attend.

Announcing the 2016 Inaugural Lydia Symposium

Mark Garcia and I are thrilled to announce the inaugural Lydia Symposium, to be held  16-17 September, 2016 at Greystone Theological Institute in Coraopolis, PA. We intend this event to act as an introduction to our work and an opportunity to engage with and hear from all those who are interested in investigating, discussing, and working towards solutions for issues facing Christian women. We are especially pleased that Dr. Rebekah (Becky) Josberger will be joining us as an invited speaker, delivering two talks connected to her work on the Torah and specifically the father in Israel. (You will learn more about her important work soon.) Please also note that I will be leading a roundtable discussion during this event, intended to provide opportunity for reflection and dialogue amongst attendees and presenters.

This event is free (Register here!), and we hope this will facilitate your attendance. It is our hope that supportive donors will subsidize this event. If you believe in the work of the Lydia Center and would like to attend the event, please consider making a donation in whatever amount you are able. Even if you cannot attend the event, your valuable donation allows us to offer this and other events for free.

I hope to see you in Coraopolis in September.


Milton, Gender, Marriage, and Divorce: A Greystone Course

The Westminster Assembly famously treated the topic of divorce grounds in the Confession of Faith XXIV:5-6, which read as follows:

5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.

We do not have a lot of information regarding the Assembly’s deliberations regarding this topic, and mapping out divorce theory during this period – in exegetical, theological, moral-theological, and civil forms – is among the most complicated and difficult areas of post-Reformation and especially seventeenth-century research.

John-Milton-portrait-008However, there is more evidence than many students of the question have assumed. Indeed, alongside the writings of the Divines themselves, the writings of the great moral theologians such as Ames and Perkins, and the twists and turns of evolving canon law, one of the most important contextual features in the Assembly’s statement is the series of publications on divorce written by the great English poet John Milton. Milton produced five different tracts on divorce over a period of eighteen months, all in the early years of the Westminster Assembly: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Restor’d to the Good of Both Sexes, From the Bondage of Canon Law (1643); Judgment of Martin Bucer (1644); Tetrachordon (1645), meaning “four-stringed” because Milton was able to harmonize four principal divorce passages in Scripture; and  Colasterion (also in 1645), meaning “rod of punishment,” in response to an anonymous critical response to his work. In at least one place (Doctrine and Discipline) he addresses the Assembly directly.

Alongside infidelity, desertion, and/or abuse, Milton argued for divorce on the grounds of what moderns have since called personal or emotional “incompatibility,” although the thin way this language is used in our day doesn’t do full justice to what Milton envisioned – although it isn’t far off either. The tracts are representative of seventeenth-century controversial polemic, and Milton’s proposals provoked plenty of predictable critical reaction. The Assembly included several members who had thought long and hard about the divorce question, particularly the eminent Hebraist and jurist John Selden, and they did not all see the same way on the matter either. At this point in a long period of studying the question, I’m inclined to propose that the Assembly rejected Milton while not rejecting all of Milton’s controversial ideas, and certainly did not reject those ideas when they were discoverable in Milton’s and the Assembly’s shared sources. This is especially important when Milton’s sources are Continental, for as many scholars are noting these days, the Assembly was driven by a desire to maximize, in a public way, the Reformed catholicity they shared with their Continental brethren.

Milton’s biography is often linked very closely to the publication of these tracts. Newly married, his wife, Mary Powell, deserted him. It is no coincidence, to be sure, that Milton wrote on divorce during this period and stopped doing so when she later returned. However, his biography is not the only factor which accounts for Milton’s tracts. He had shown interest in the question years earlier, and his divorce tracts reveal a lively, restless, though mildly anarchic mind captivated by the diversity of the Christian tradition on the question as well as the power of more recent Reformed works which treated it, especially Martin Bucer’s. Bucer was a focus of Milton’s thinking on divorce, though his treatment of the Strasbourg reformer’s thought is not always on target. But Milton was also strongly indebted to William Ames and Theodore Beza, and showed close knowledge of an impressive range of patristic and medieval sources, Christian and secular. Beyond these, Milton showed strong familiarity with the serious questions that belong to any patient consideration of the biblical divorce texts.

Another factor, and in my view the most important one for reading Milton and Westminster, is Milton’s role in pushing forward the emerging early modern mythology — often as bewildering as it has proven influential — of gender and sexuality. His divorce tracts simply must be read alongside the story of Adam and Eve in his Paradise Lost, at least. His account of Eve’s folly is particularly noteworthy. Milton seems to bear the larger burden of guilt in popularizing the fiction that the Fall occurred because Eve wandered from her man in the Garden and thus became vulnerable prey to the serpent. Interestingly, many early modern English translations of the Bible reflect the same wildly wrongheaded reading of Genesis 3 by omitting (!) in their translations what in the Hebrew is quite explicit: Adam was “with her” (Gen. 3:6). Much more on that another time.

Was Milton right about divorce? In many places, no, he was quite wrong. On incompatibility especially, he is often dangerously unhelpful. Yet incompatibility-as-ground is not the whole picture of his argument, and scholars of the question have ignored him to their detriment. He is a great deal more nuanced than he is given credit for, and one simply cannot understand WCF XXIV fully without taking a lot of time with Milton and other contemporary texts. Importantly, that Milton found in the sources of the Christian and particularly Reformed tradition is truly there, too, and not without careful biblical and theological reflection. What is often regarded in our day as “the traditional” Reformed position on these questions is, after little more than a moment’s investigation, one point in a constellation, and nothing like the entire cosmos. In light of the hefty and truly rich body of scholarly literature on the biblical divorce texts in the last few decades, Milton’s reading of Scripture in some ways bears the marks of fairly standard mistakes, yet in other ways is well ahead of its time.

The foregoing is one long way to introduce this summer’s Greystone Milton course. It is a one-week modular course on Milton as poet-theologian. The course title and description are as follows:

“Milton in Literary and Theological Perspective” – David R. Head and Mark A. Garcia, July 25-29, 2016

After a survey of Milton’s biography, the political and historical contexts of his work, and key ideas in Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and select sonnets, this course will turn to a focused analysis of Milton’s controversial and influential theology of gender, marriage, and divorce, with a view to its impact on the Westminster Assembly and the Christian tradition generally.

Consider auditing the course, at least, so you can listen to the audio files and try to make sense of it yourself.

Contact to register or for more information.