Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Final Look at Egypt

My work here at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo is almost finished. I will be leaving next week after serving as the interim director of the Graduate Studies program for almost two years. The picture at the right, note the banner of Tweedy Bird, is of the market area in central Cairo. Two minarets of two mosques are visible against the sky line. This is a popular place for people to visit because it gives one a favor for the way people have lived in this place for many centuries. I need to say that although there were some instances of violence reported while I was here, none touched me, only the friendliness of these people. I found people very helpful, even though I never made much of an effort to learn Arabic.

The new director, Mark Nygard and his spouse Linda, are now scheduled to arrive in late August. I will have a chance to meet them at a conference in late July in Wisconsin. I will be trying to leave clear records, helpful suggestions, and a clean apartment for them. There will be some kind of annoucement on the Global Mission web site to tell you more about them. I can say briefly that he is receiving his Ph.D. in Missiology this spring at Luther seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has served many years in Global Mission assignments before. It is good to know that our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will continue its partnership with the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition in this place.

I am returning to the southern California area and will seek to serve in a way the Bishop, Dean Nelson, would want to use me. I have found that continuing to be challenged by ministry is a very healthy thing for me. I plan to use my spare time to study some more art history and perhaps to volunteer some at a pre-school center. We will see. As I like to say: "Only God knows, and she has not told me yet." This will be the last of my blog spots. I have enjoyed writing them. You can keep in touch with me by my e-mail,, if you wish.
I wanted to leave you with a couple of book recommendations I have just finished reading. The one on the left is by a Roman Catholic missionary who served most of his life in Egypt among the farmers he writes about. It is a little dated, but I found it interesting when we remember that all the great monuments here and all over the world could not have happened without the persistent, often silent providers who were and still are very embedded in the soil. It does not glamourize or romanticize these people, but tells their story with empathy and a sense of the value of work. Even today in Egypt not that much has changed from what he describes. The Egyptian government does assist the farmers in many ways, and as you might expect, the temptation to move to the big city is a major part in modern Egyptian society.
The other book, by a noted Middle Eastern scolar, can help to introduce you to the history of the peoples of this region. It may be a helpful companion piece to the discussions going on in the world today about the Middle East, which are moving away from the kind of confrontational rhetoric which has been prevelant in this first decade of this 21st century. I am glad to see these present trends are seeking a more just treatment of Palestinians and others, often forgotten and abandoned who inhabit this region.
May God continue to bless you in your lives. I feel grateful to God for some many things, but most of all, friends. In Christ, Roger Rogahn

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Graduation # 140

Welcome to the graduation ceremonies for the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo! Last weekend in one of the larger Presbyerian churches in Cairo students of the divinity program, of other special programs, and of the master's program which I direct were honored by their friends and family, and the entire Presbyterian community in Egypt. It was a joyous event as you can imagine. To receive a bachelor of divinity degree at ETSC one takes a full range of classes in Hebrew, Greek, Biblical studies, Church history and theology and the practical skills necessary for serving the Presbyterian Church of the Nile. This study periord lasts for four years, and each summer in-between students are assigned to ministry locations (hospitals, camps and parishes) for pratical experience and evaluation. One year after graduation and service in a parish, they become eligible for ordination.

Many of the young men will take positions in Upper Egypt, at sites with a church builidng and a small community of believers, but who have had only lay elders as leaders for several years because of the shortage of pastors. Some will marry as they do this. (I remember that it had been the tradition in the past of our Lutheran church in the United States that seminary students often delayed their marriage until after they had been ordained, or would find a spouse among the members of the first parish they served). The seminary continues to be supported by the church within Egypt, but also by the gifts of Christian abroad, both with cash and with the "endowing" of chairs for professors who teach at the seminary. The position I have held here for two years is a type of endowed chair (providing the total resources for a professor to serve at the seminary), which is part of the commitment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Interviews are under way to bring a new director to Cairo in August of this year. I will assist in the transition period.

You have seen each of these four graduates of the master's program before. Next to me is Wagdy, who wrote his thesis on the changes in the public involvement by the Presbyterian Church of the Nile during the early years of Egyptian independence under President Nasser. Wagdy shows by reviewing the articles and editorials in the semi-official synod newspaper, el Hoda, how the church leaders
ceased to speak out on issues of justice and equality, fearing that the new government would suppress and persecute the church. They became more focused solely on "spiritual" issues, as Wagdy describe this era.

Rania completed her work on the Intertestamental citations of the concepts of the "Messiah" and "Son of God" which were joined together by the writers of the synoptic Gospels to describe Jesus. She had Willem deWit, our Biblical teacher from the Netherlands, as her advisor. Both she and Wagdy will spend a fall semester as guests of Princeton Theological Seminary in the United States, thanks to a generous grant from an alumus of that institution.
Not pictured is our graduate John Daniel Nathan who will continue to be the teacher of Greek to divinity students at ETSC. He write his thesis on the uses of the Genative Absolute verb tense in Greek, as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Magdy, next to him, completed his dissertation on the " Influences of the Evangelical on the Coptic Church in Egypt". Since its coming here in the 1850, the Presbyterians from the United States have presented challenges to the Egyptian Orthodox Church, the church which has the tradition of being founded by St. Mark, the Gospel writer. Education through schools and cirriculum, the distribution of the Van Dyke Arabic Bible and other printed materials, and the concept of lay leadership in the church were some of their areas which stimulated the Coptic Church to respond. Magdy will continue in his occupation as a civil engineer here is Cairo.
Musa Kody wrote his thesis on Ephesians chapter two, and how the grace proclaimed by St. Paul needs to be taught in its clarity in the comptemporary society of the Sudan. He will return there to be reunited with his family, (a son was born during this school year whom he has not yet seen), and to teach at the Nile Theological School.

We wish them all God's speed and blessing. I will write more about my transition soon. Roger R.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Women in Egypt Today

Greetings from Cairo. This is our last week of classes. Second year students are working to finish their dissertations in time for them to be reviewed (and approved) for graduation the end of this month. The class I am teaching in Christianity in the Middle East is studying the dynamics after Christians were tolerated and then took control of the state goveranace in the later Roman Empire. Sometimes their zeal to "purge" society of pagan influences reached beyond legal limits and passed to the hands of violent groups.
Our first picture is of a neo-platonic woman scholar who lived (and died) at the beginning of the 5th century CE. She died at the hands of a Christian mob. Her name was Hypatia of Alexandria. This image is part of a large fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Rafael. He places her among the philosophers of the ancient world in The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican in Rome. She is significant because she shows the intellectual level of some women in the period of the late Roman/early Christian empire. She also illustrates what some Christians did who felt it their "duty" to eradicate the last vestiges of pagan philosophy, and philosophers.

You can read more about her and how she became something of a cult figure in Europe at the time of the Enlightment. She even has a lunar crater named after her, recognizing her achievements in philosophy and astronomy. She was part of the cultural achievement of Alexandria during this time. She died because people felt that she was interfering in the political matters between the civil prefect of the city and its patriarch, Cyril. She has been portrayed as the epitome of "vulnerable truth and beauty."

Our next picture brings us up to the present, and captures the image of a woman walking through the central court at the al-Alzar mosque and madrasa (school) in Islamic Cairo. This place has been the center of Muslim activities since the 12th century. You can see that she has on the traditional head scarf and long robe that many women in Egypt still wear when they are out in public.
This serves to introduce us to the theme of women in contemporary Egyptian society. Dr. Hoda Awad, an Egypian scholar who is on the board of directors of our seminary and also has been a very helpful member of the graduate studies committee while I have been here, has written a thoughtful and frank assessment of the legal status of women in Egypt, and possibilities for "reform and social inertia' at the present time. If you would like me to e-mai you a copy, I would be happy to do so. She often appears regularly on Egyptian T.V. to comment on national and international topics.

The article she wrote is too long and detailed to review here. She does trace the efforts to reform the laws in Egypt during the 20th century, even with the resistance of many traditional forces in the Islam community. She points out that Egypt has been more progressive than other middle eastern lands in its efforts to secure justice for women within the home and in public space. She asks the question at the end: can the "issue of women's equality be achieved by presidential decrees, inserting new constitutional articles, or should it be supported by the civil institutions, professional syndicates, political parties, non governmental organizations, intellectuals, and by the large popular sector?" These are questions yet to be answered here. I thought you might be interested in this topic. You can writre me at with comments, or to request a copy of the 21 page article.
My last picture shows a sign outside the railway station in Minya, a city in upper Egypt I visited at Easter. It shows people who are victims of domestic violence, abuse or persecution, and calls on them and their families to report such crimes to government officials. I may have some time to research this and other topics about Egyptian society as my activities at the seminary wind down in June. (I am returning to California in late June and will be happy to arrange to visit with your congregation).
My term with Global Missions ends the middle of August. Then I plan to settle again in southern California and be available for long term interim work).
Until my next blog which will picture our graduation ceremonies at the end of June, this is Roger Rogahn signing off.
Peace and justice.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Greetings in the risen Lord, as we continue to celebrate Easter. Last Sunday, April 19th, Egyptian Christians celebrated the resurrection of our Lord (one week later this year than you Christians in the West). I journeyed to a mid size city called Minya, about a four hour trip by train or bus from Cairo in upper Egypt. A divinity student named Emir was my guide.The two of us have been studying the Bible in English to improve his use of that language and he invited me to share Easter with his family.

When we arrived we were too late to attend the Good Friday service at this large church, the Second Evangelical Church Church of Minya, but as you can see the exterior was still abraze with light. Many people were still inside, participating in small group meetings and preparing for Easter Sunday. I was surprized to see such a display of light to the community, since for the most part the construction of Christian churches and their presentation to the community are carefully monitored and controlled by the Egyptian Muslim government. But Minya has almost the same number of Christians as Muslims and it seemed that a fairly tolerant attitude was being shown. The pastor of the smaller church where Emir and his family attend (we will talk about that soon) told me that when he first came to that suburb about ten years ago there was much hostility, but that the projects his people worked on in the community (repairing housing for the poor and project "20/20", to test for eye problems and provide glasses for all) helped to change old attitudes.

I took the picture below of the ceiling of the sanctuary of this church because it is the most prominent feature inside. Like most Evangelical churches from the 19th century American Presbyterian beginnings, the chancel area consists of a simple cross on the back wall and a podium from which the singing is led and the Word proclaimed. Far from the Coptic Orthodox churches with their icons and other images, central features in their worship life and theology, evangelicals place their emphasis on the preached word and its power to convert and to instruct. The lights here do convey a beauty and brillance which pays homage to the Lord of Light without changing the space from its central focus, the hearing of the Word. Quite an interesting contrast which gives Christians in Egypt a choice. This contrast would be even more striking to me as we were to attend sevices in the small, humble church of Emir and his family which is about two miles from the center of the city.

Now I need to add that his church is currently engaged in a building project which, having received all the necessary government approval, will cost about 2 million Egyptian pounds (there are about 5.5 EP to each American dollars), but it will not be as grand as this one. This is quite a sum for a congregation of about 50 families, most coming from modest economic backgrounds. Naturally their pastor wanted me to find sponsoring churches in the United States to assist with this. The development office at the seminary and in the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile is already at work on behalf of this and other projects for its churches throughout Egypt and also needs to provide salary help to many of the smaller congregations scattered throughout the land. Many times the graduates of our seminary are sent to places which have had no pastor for years. These seminary graduates usually marry after ordination and so have the added responsibility of beginning a family.

I was invited to preach, both on Saturday evening and on Easter Sunday, along with the pastor and lay members. Emir did a fine job on translating what I had to say. There were some young people in the congregation who said that because I had used short sentences to make it easier for Emir to translate, they were able to understand most of what I

I had said. I also learned on this trip that the Egyptian government had recently changed its policy and now encourages the primary schools to introduce English (and computer science) to children at a young age, well aware that this will aid them and the country in the world of the 21st century.

Pastor Samir Gayed is to my right, and Emir is to the far left in the photo, together with two other seminary students who were home for their Easter vacation. The men to my left are elders in the church who also preached and led the congregation in prayer. As you can see the chancel of the church (on this Easter Sunday) was not decorated, save for the cross on the wall. There ware no plans to decorate the sanctuary in their new building on the second floor other than this way. The first floor will be for meeting rooms and a pre-school, and the third floor will be the office of the pastor and his living quarters. He has served in this place for almost ten year (a good way anywhere to show you love the community as well as the people in the church community). I preached on the Letter of Jude, verses 20-21, to recognize that there are different kinds of building as we seek to become more and more resurrected in the image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

", dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life."

Grace and peace, Roger R.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Views of the world

Greetings as we move closer to Holy Week and the retelling of the story of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. My class in ancient Christianity is soon to deal with the radical change in the attitide of the government of the Roman Empire toward Christians, from their being a persecuted Jewish sect to becoming an imperial church, embraced and supported by the rulers. Many changes were taking place during these times, and I would like to highlite one in this blog.

To the right is a picture which has greeted me from my first day in Egypt in the office of Graduate Studies. It is a graffic reminder of a church movement in late antiquity where men and women fled from the distractions of this world to seek a closer communion with God. Through a stern discipline of renouncing all worldly pleasures, and even pursuing a life without a spouse and children, a person, either alone or sometimes in small groups, would live away from civilization. It was hoped that by this means, one's attention would be focused solely on things "spiritual". A book introduced by Helen Waddell, called "The Desert Fathers", records many stories of people who abandoned this world, while awaiting their journey to the next.

We have just finished examining martyrdom in the early church, the ultimate way of renouncing this world. You can review what I wrote in a previous blog spot about Felicity and Perpetua, two martyrs in North Africa. Historians also point to other signs in the period of late ancient history when there existed a "weariness" and a fatalism with regard to this life and this world. But it was not always the case.
In the last vain hope by the pagan Roman world to suppress and destroy Christianity, and to recover the glories of ancient Rome, the Emperor Diocletion instituted a great persecution of the believers beginning in 284 CE. He also supported the program of a fine scholar named Porphyry who advocated the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. This philosophy was even attractive in ways to some Christian scholars such as Origen and Augustine, though it had no place for Christ as the saviour of the world through his sacrifice on the cross. It did help Christians to talk about the way that the divine God communicated with the material world through the concept of the Logos (and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14).
Porphyry asserted something more. He was an heir of the noble art forms of ancient Greece and Rome. So he taught that we can know something of the divine nature and essence (its beauty and goodness) by emanations of the spiritual world in the physical world, i.e. the created world, (though these are only imperfect copies). Things of the earth can in some ways give us glimpses of what lies beyond, and the art which humans create also lifts the human spirit toward these noble concepts of beauty and truth.
The second picture in this blog is probably familiar to you. Michelanglo, the gifted artist of the Italian Renaissance (he lived most of the 16th century) was attracted to this Neo-Platonic philosophy of Porphyry, and there was even a Platonic Academy established by the de Medici, a rich merchant family in Florence. Michelangelo wished to glorfy God in his art, and believed that the celebration of and creation of beauty in art lifted us into the spiritual realm. Michelangelo was one of those who ushered in the era we now call modern, which sought to recapture the art and architecture of the ancient pagan world.
I thought you might be interested in these contrasting views of the world and how they are expressed in art. David here appears poised and confident as he looks to the threat of the giant Goliath, and is armed with only a sling and stones. Michelangelo wanted this also to symbolize his city Florence, as it fought for its survival and advancement in that troubled age. It represented a recovery (Renaissance means rebirth) of a celebration of and confidence in the human spirit and what it could accomplish through human efforts in this world.
May God's spirit move among us in this season to renew our spirits.
A blessed Holy Week and Easter to all.
Roger R.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Global Connections

Greetings again from the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. We are about half way through our spring term. Five second year students are busily writing their dissertations with the expectation they will be awarded their masters' degrees at graduation in late May. Dr. Taylor from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio is presenting his course on "Early Christian Piety" and delivered a paper on Paul's understanding of a new Mediterranean family this past Tuesday at our Scholar's Seminar. In this blog I want to share with you some other news about our global connections.

ETSC receives visiting professors and students from outside the Middle East and is grateful for this interaction. We are also supported by seminaries and churches in the United States who accept scholars from here to study in their institutions and provide them with scholarships for this study abroad. Two professors here will go to the U.S. next fall. The first of these, pictured to the right is professor Samy Hana, who had been awarded a five year scholarship to pursue his doctoral degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his family (wife and two children) will live abroad as he studies in the field of Christian Education.

Samy had completed his master's degree at Princeton last year and returned to teach here in the 2008-2009 school year. One of our long time professors in that field, Dr. Mufeed, will be retiring in about five years and Samy will return to serve ETSC in the field of Christian Education. Samy is also a medical doctor and teaches courses in pastoral care in the cirriculum of the seminary. (If you want to view Dr. Mufeed's profile, you can go to the ETSC web site - The Egyptian government has been reviewing the credentials of the teaching faculty of the seminary, and this will help to strengthen its qualifications for the future.

Two of our graduate students completing their dissertations this spring, Rania Nabil and Wagdy Wahba, (profiled in an earlier blog), have also been accepted for a one semester study program at Princeton next fall. This is intended to facilitate their personal growth and also to provide the opportunity to an interaction of Egyptians with an academic community in the United States. A generous benefactor in the United States has made this possible. Both students are well qualified academically and in their ability to communicate in English. One of the reasons the ETSC graduate school program is conducted in the English language is to allow for such exchanges.
Our second professor to be awarded a scholarship to study in the United States is Professor Sherif Salah, also a medical doctor, who serves on the seminary faculty in the field of pastoral care and counselling. He has been accepted in the Th.M. program at the Pittsburgh Seminary of Missions. In its statement of mission, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary states that it "recognizes the global nature of the Christian church and seeks to play a role of educating leaders for churches around the world". Scholarships and financial aid grants are awarded through the resources of th World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
What is interesting to me is that the churches throughout the world, all of which are feeling the impact of the financial downturn, continue to support these internationalprograms which will pay dividends to people in places outside the United States.
This commitment is also true for our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for although there will need to be cut backs in funds for global missions, these will not be done in a disproportionate way in relation to the rest of the budget. The wholeness and the globalness (is this a word?) of the church is still of great importance to us.
May your journey in this Lenten season bring you closer to our Lord, and to those who share this journey with you.
In Christ, Roger R.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Welcoming a U.S. professor

Greetings again as we are moving through the season of Lent. We have been joined here at the seminary by Dr. Walter Taylor, who has taught New Testament students at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio for many years. He is pictured to the right with four of the five students in his class on "Early Christian Piety". His course complements the course of our Dutch scholar, Willem deWit in Advanced Greek, and the one I am teaching in Christianity from its beginnings to the coming of Islam. He will be with us until the middle of May, and will be joined by his wife and one of their daughters for some touring in Egypt during the Easter break.

This exchange of professors from the U.S. is being encouraged so that intercultural contracts can add to the broadening of our horizons in this global age. If you or someone you know would like to be considered for this type of teaching experience in the future, you can contact our regional representative who now lives in Cairo with his family ( If you know of someone who would be interested in pursuing the position of Director of Graduate Studies at ETSC, our Global Mission Division Division is still looking for my replacement. I made it clear when I came for this second year that I would not continue after June of 2009. This is an opportunity for a church historian or scholar in Muslim-Christian relations to teach, administer the graduate program of about 12 students, and experience the rich cultural and intellectual environment in the Middle East.

The second picture is of the library staff here at ETSC. They are a dedicated group which supervises the extensive collection of books in Arabic and in English, which has been built up in the more than 150 years the seminary has been in existence. A modest budget allows us to add to the resources for the students and faculty each year, and we also subscribe to an international web service called ATLA, which allows for the review of current journal articles and books. The seminary uses this service because it is a better way to keep current than incurring the expenses of a large number of journals and periodicals subscriptions.

The woman next to Dr. Taylor has invited me to the house of her family before, and plans to have us visit some Sunday when we can participate in her husband's church service.
Our second year students were also able to get books brought with visiting groups from the United States and the seminary does all it can to equip its students with books and other resources while they are studying here, and as they go forth to serve in the many parish opportunities throughout Egypt and other lands of the Middle East. If you have questions or comments about this you can write me, including of ways that you might support the seminary and its students beyond what the ELCA is presenting doing.

Yours in Christ, Roger Rogahn

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Living under empire

Greetings again from Cairo, Egypt. We have been reviewing the characteristics of the Roman Empire at the time of the birth of Jesus in our class on church history. The economic situation was that about 90% of the people were poor, and lived on and depended upon the produce of the land for their sustenance. These people were subject to high taxes from the wealthy landowners and often were at the mercy of the extremes in weather which could wipe out all their work for the year, leaving them hungry and often in deeper debt. It was not uncommon in these times that the only answer was to sell themselves into slavery, at least for a while, in order to secure the basic needs for living.

I was think about how this same economic situation is very much a part of our world today. Many, many people live off the land and have to hope that all conditions are right to bring about an abundant harvest. Sadly, with our neglect and abuse of the creation, times of drought in some places and of too much rain in others are more and more been the norm rather than the exception. And the ability of poor countries to respond to their people in need are more and more limited because of the downturn in the global economic picture, a condition which is now forecast to continue for many year. Here in Egypt the people are feeling the ill effects of this global problem.

I meet weekly with a divinity student who wishes to improve his ability to read, speak and understand English. One of his classes has been studying the Book of Proverbs and so we start our sessions by having him read a passage out loud, and then we discuss what it means, and how it applies to his congregation in Minia, Upper Egypt. This past week we came upon these verses in chapter 13.

...v. 21 = Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the
...v. 23 = A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away

As we talked about these we realized how the first is consistent with the main trust of the Book of Proverbs, that hard work and clean living produce blessings which God confers upon the "good" people, and that the lazy and the evil person will suffer dire consequences. However, the second verse attributes "bad" things to unseen forces outside of our control which are present in the world.

We decided that this later verse is a much more accurate and complete picture of the way things often are. It certainly stops us from "blaming" the poor for their plight. A postcolonial biblical scholar from South African points out that many times the missionaries from the west sought to reenforce certain "middle class" stereotypes of the poor through the use of the Book of Proverbs in their introduction of the Bible to "distant" places in the world.

The painting above is by a 19th cenury French artist named Jean-Francois Millet, entitled "L'homme a la houe", and so affected an America poet, Edwin Markham, that in 1863 he began his verses about it with these words:

The Man with a Hoe

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground.
The emptiness of ages in his face, and on his back, the burden of the world.

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave to have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power; to feel the passion of eternity?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands, is this the handiwork you give to God?
Give back the upward looking and the light; rebuild in it the music and the dream.

May these images serve to remind us of the plight of so many in this world, and as we join together to plan for a better future that it will include all who now suffer severe hardships.

In Christ, peace, hope, and a sufficient and sustainable income for all. Roger R.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Women hidden in history

Greetings again, as we begin the Spring term here at ETSC. Hope all is well with you. My course in Christianity in the Middle East will study the beginnings of the church up to the coming of Islam. Following up on the course which focused on the contributions of women in the field of biblical interpretation, I present for you these women of the ancient church and their contributions.

The painting on the right by a German Renaissance artist bears the title: "Do not touch me." showing his concept of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary of Magdala. From this and other biblical passages mentioning the "Marys", church tradition has constructed many commentaries of her person and her place among the disciples of Jesus. She is often confused with the women of ill refute who came to Jesus for forgiveness and came to symbolize the redemptive power which could come to women. Particularly in Western church tradition this linkage of prostitute and saint served to warn the male population of the temptations of the "flesh" which women present to men in this life, and often connect the female gender to Satan and his wiles. Such portraits went a long way in "dehumanizing" women and putting them forth as the reason for the fall of Adam and all men. This picks up on the one passage in I Timothy 2:14: "And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."

This title, "Do not touch me", can also help to introduce us to the "Gospel of Mary", a Gnostic (heretical) writing which seems to have been written in the 2nd or 3rd century. Gnostics, using pagan, Jewish and Christian images, had developed a scheme which saw the material world (the world of matter) as evil, which entraps the divine soul or spark of humans, which is immortal. Salvation is not viewed as forgiveness of sins and new life to begin now in Christ through faith, but as a special knowledge of how to liberate this divine soul from captivity to the world and in the human body. The writer or writers of the Gospel of Mary sought to influence Christians by introducing this book which would challenge the theology in the other books circulating in Christian churches in the Roman Empire. This also raises another part of the attitude toward women arising in the early church, when they returned from the empty tomb - "Let no one believe them, let them keep silent." See Luke 24:9-11.

When they (the women) came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others,
It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the
apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

In Revelation 3:20, the Church in Thyatira is warned against "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.(and) by her teachings misleads my servants into sexual immorality...." Adjusting more and more to the patriarchal, androcentric Roman world, the church silenced those who presented alternate views through alternate spokepersons.

But not all women were silent. A dramatic tradition grew up about some of the women who were martyred due to their opposition to Rome and its traditions and values. They spoke with words and actions, and their lives. The story of Perpetua and Felicity, in the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitas, probably written in 202-203 CE, records their defiance to Roman oppression, and also her rejection of obedience to a Roman father, while embracing a new vision of life and of eternity from which they were to gain courage, conviction, and independence. In the words of Perpetua, and her actions which triumphed over both mental and physical suffering imposed on her, the new identity and new spirit of Christianity is demonstrated, particularly for women in a male-dominated society. In her visions of battles, sometimes casting her as a male athlete contending in the arena, the old forces try in vain to defeat her through the use of fear tactics and physical torture. The story seeks not only to witness to the glory of God, but also to strengthen the weak among the Christians as they too are facing the fierce persecutions of Roman authorities in the last great attempt to eradicate Christianity under the Emperor Diocletian. It highlights the witness of women.

You may find two recent articles of interest in the exploration of this, one by Lisa M. Sullivan, in a Union Theological Seminary Abstract, and another by Willam Tabbellece, entitled "Perpetua, Montanism, and Christian Ministry in Carthage" in the NABPR. Here again, women in history become the center of story telling, and also shine forth as ways that women expressed their independence and their faith.

A third woman, Macrina, who has come to be studied a great deal recently is part of a famous family, lived in Cappadocia, a part of the eastern section of the Roman Empire, in the 4th century. They had lived through the persecution of Diocletian, and we know about her from a biography written by her brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Not only is she a devoted mother and head of a large household, something expected of aristocratic women in her day, but a teacher par excellence. She nurtured and helped to shape the traditions of the martyrs, and of the communal life for women in convents, and is said to have performed many miracles, including one on herself. If you wish to read more about her, let me recommend a chapter entitled: The Cult of the Martyrs and the Cappadocian Fathers (sic), by Vasiliki Limberis, in: Byzantine Christianity, edited by Derek Kreuger, in a series published by Fortress Press of A People's History of Christianity, publications on various periods of Church history seeking to uncover "hidden" aspects of the faith and life of "ordinary" Christians. I recommend this series to you.
There are some scholars who argue that she was the author of or a contributing partner to several of the major theological works attributed to her family, to Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, during this era of Church councils and controversies. The church was becoming part of the late Roman Empire, replacing paganism. In a dialogue between Macrina and Gregory, the issue of the immortality of the soul (a popular concept in that day from Greek philosophy) and the resurrection of the body (or as it is expressed with greater clarity, the resurrection of the dead in the Christian creeds of that day), an attempt is made to reconcile the two. For Macrina, death brings about the dissolution of both the body (the visible person) and the soul (the invisible). Thus, the radical proclamation of Christ's resurrection from the dead, following the end of all that is life, is presented with all its starkness. And, that which is what we might call the personality (the soul) while also dead, is not lost, but for her becomes part the resurrected person. In this she notes is room for grief and for hope. It also suggests that our life in this world in Christ where we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ will be present as it was when we were alive, and will be completed in the resurrection. as we come into the fullness of Christ.
I used to play the game with people asking them if they could choose to go back in history to meet people which ones they would like to get to know in their own time and context. The three I have just written about are on my list.
Blessings to all. Roger R.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Orientalism" revisited

The class I am teaching on modern hermeneutics concludes this week. There have been stimulating discussions in the class sessions as we have reviewed the history of biblical interpretations in the church, with a particular emphasis on the contributions of women, Latin American scholars, and those in a "postcolonial" world in these last 200 years. The title of this last group is to denote biblical scholars in countries which shed the domination of European and American imperial rule after World War II, and who now look back on the contributions that "western" missionaries made in the 19th and 20th century, and approach these with a "hermeneutic of suspicion".
To say more about what is meant by the term Orientalism, let we start with the picture at the left, a French painting of the early 19th cenury of the "Battle of the Pyramids". This was when French troops under Napoleon defeated a Mamluk Egyptian force in 1798 and temporaily occupied Egypt. Napoleon hoped to expand his empire by adding much of the Middle East, even offering to become a Muslim (which would have included being circumcised) to complete the deal. (The offer was rejected by Islamic leaders, and the British with their control of the seas soon ended his dream for a near eastern empire). If you want to read a recent book about all this, see: Mirage, Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, by Nina Burleigh. But what Napoloeon did which had more far reaching results was to bring an eager group of scientists with him (one great discovery being the Rosetta Stone, which allowed modern scholars to translate the hieroglyphic writings of ancient Egypt into modern languages). This produced a tremendous fascination for all things Egyptian and Near Eastern. Also, by the mid 19th century, missionary zeal in England and the United States led to the influx of Protestant teachers, at first intent in helping to revive the Coptic Orthodox Church, but then to establish their own schools and churches. One of the anchoring points for our class in hermenuetics has been to review the hermenuetical principles of John Calvin, which would have been a part of their teachings here in Egypt. These were taken from a book by Gerald Bray, entitled: Biblical Interpretation, Past & Present.

This fascination with all things of the "East" produced an outpouring of books and articles, written by European and American authors which interpreted for the "West" what the cultures and religions of these Middle Eastern lands were, seen through the lenses of westerners, who too often began with a superiority complex. A book (pictured on the right) we are using to explore this dynamic was written in 1978, and begins with this comment:
Orientalism is a history of the ways in which the West has discovered,
invented and sought to control the East. [This term Orientalism] tells
us more about the Occident than it does about the East.
Edward Said was writing at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel, and notes how the earlier pictures of the East played a significant part in attitudes in the West toward Islam and Arabs as well as in the development of the views of Zionism and Christian Zionism.
And one particular comment which caught my eye, given the recent events in the Gaza territory (remember, this book was written in 1978), was his evaluation of the life of the Arab Palestinian as distressing: a result of the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, dehumanizing ideology, which puts these people at the bottom of the garbage heap. When we add the dynamic of terrorism and Muslim extremist of a few to this already devastating picture painted of these human beings, we begin to understand how perceptions built up over decades and centuries can cloud our vision and can influence our policies.
One of the over-all objectives of this class and of others in the graduate program is to encourage the students to question what they have previously been taught and to evaluate it in the light of the scholarship of others and their own abilities and perceptions, hence, "a hermeneutic of suspicion".
More later. Hope all are well. Roger R.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January Course on Biblical Interpretations begins

Greetings again in the new year from Egypt. This week I am beginning to teach a three week course entitled: "Hermeneutical Developments in the 20th Century". Hermeneutics is the way by which we seek to draw out all possible meanings of a Bibical text, by using the methods and insights developed by biblical scholars of different times and different contexts, as well as our own - so that we can apply these truths to our own lives and witness. These movements which came to fruition in the 20th century were by women, Latin Americas Liberation theologians, and biblical scholars in countries which freed themselves from Western colonial rule after World War II (now called the postcolonial hermeneutic).
Let me illustrate some of this by translating the last line of the part of a poem (to the right) about Bishop Oscar Romeo, who was martyred in El Salvador, Central America for standing against the oppression of the ruling junta and siding with the oppressed poor of the land. The last line translates:
(as you accompanied them)
"The poor taught you how to read the Gospel".
As a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century, he would have learned all the traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures which had been developed from the beginnings of the Christian Church, but now in his love and care for his people he came to see the Gospel through their eyes. This transformed his ministry.
The second picture was painted by a Sudanese artist, who is now a refugee in Egypt because of the warfare in his own land. As I purchased it, I asked the merchant why the face of one woman and half the face of another seemed to have been left unpainted. He assured me that it was not because the artist had not finish his work (in his desire for a sale), but that it represented a part of southern Sudanese culture that expresses itself in a dualism, the opposing forces of light and darkness, or what is hidden in shadow and what is visible in the sunlight. I wished that I had had more time to visit with him, and I have been unsuccessful so far in contacting the artist to ask more about this.
But for now, one thing the painting suggested to me is how the different phases of the moon are visible to all in the nighttime sky (as in these faces). Because of how the sun's light is reflected from it to earth we sometimes see a full face (but only one half of the moon), and a half face -in shadow and in light, and a time when all the moon is all in shadow. I have no way of knowing if this was the artit's intention, or if it holds any credence (for I am still an amateur art student). But I think that it is possible to describe how we know others in much the same way, (where parts are in light and parts in shadow) As I start the class, I am going to put a toy parrot on the table in the classroom and ask each student to describe what he or she sees (without moving around to view it from other angles) or asking others. The point of this simple exercise will be that we also experience life from our own vantage point and through our own lenses. We need help from others to expand and enhance our knowledge. (Maybe it is a little like the limits of our knowledge of the moon we had before cameras and people from earth were able to take pictures from the dark side).
In the matter of interpreting the Scriptures, we will be looking into how others help us with the areas (with our limited perspectives and locations) which we may not have yet seen clearly. Often those who received the Scriptures in their own languages for the first time in the great mssionary movements of the 19th century are now (postcolonial hermeneutics) questioning just how much of Western culture and values came along with the Bible, even in the ways it is intended to be interpreted. This is called a "hermeneutics of suspicion". Women were the first to point out that most biblical scholars over the centuries were men, and too often had a decidely male-centered perspective. We will explore what these "new" colleagues from other countries and others cultures, and women, can teach us.
As I write this, the presiding bishop of the ELCA, Dr. Mark Hanson, and many synodical bishops are completing their trip to Jerusalem. If you want to learn more about their reflections, check to see what is written on the ELCA web page ( or your synod's web page. Could help us to understand more of what is happening and what we can do.
Peace, justice and joy, Roger R.