10/10/2017 Update: It has recently been brought to my attention that Dr. Oliveto’s staff in the Yellowstone Conference have now removed the original Facebook post to which we linked below. The URL was https://www.facebook.com/YACUMC/posts/1445909482157812
I have seen no public apology or retraction from Ms. Oliveto, nor any public explanation for why her August 19 message, in which she herself exposed some of the most controversial parts of her theology, is now being hidden. In any case, on September 13, I saved screen captures of her message, which you can see are taken from the above web address, and am now making them available here: Screen Shot #1, Screen Shot #2, Screen Shot #3, Screen Shot #4, and Screen Shot #5.
Do those who have supported and defended the efforts to make Dr. Karen Oliveto a bishop in the United Methodist Church love the cause of LGBTQ liberation more than they love Jesus Christ?
If you think that it sounds too harsh to even ask such a question, then I respectfully invite you to consider how before and especially after the Western Jurisdiction elected her in July 2016, the jubilant words and actions of liberal caucus activists and other Oliveto supporters throughout the denomination have amounted to asserting that Oliveto’s being an openly partnered lesbian activist – to the exclusion of ALL other considerations, even the public track record of her bizarre theology – made her THE most qualified possible individual to be entrusted with all the power and responsibility bishops enjoy to teach and guard the Christian faith. I have yet to observe any limits to the extremes of theological oddity or mistreatment of other people for which Oliveto’s supporters will quickly give her a free pass. And then consider how Dr. Oliveto has more recently been using the bishop’s office, particularly with her August 19 weekly message, which was brought to my attention this week.
In a key passage, Karen Oliveto says:
“Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him. But this story cracks the pedestal we’ve put him on. The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. Like you and me, he didn’t have his life figured out. He was still growing, maturing, putting the pieces together about who he was and what he was supposed to do. We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God.
As one person put it: ‘Jesus wasn’t a know-it-all, he was also learning God’s will like any human being and finally he changed his mind…if Jesus didn’t have to know it all innately, but rather could grow into new and deeper understanding through an openness to God’s people [even those he formerly discounted], maybe if Jesus could change his mind then maybe so can we!”
Create an idol out of Jesus? Yes, Jesus was and is fully human. That’s an indispensable part of the foundational Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
But aside from a very brief mention in a list of traditional titles for Jesus, Oliveto’s message largely steers clear of the other part of the Incarnation, that Jesus was and is fully and eternally divine. Indeed, it is difficult to see how her view of Jesus is ultimately higher than what might be affirmed by some Unitarians or even atheists.
Through most of this message, rather than using traditional Trinitarian language about Jesus Christ’s relationship with the Father (i.e., the relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity), Oliveto uses essentially Unitarian language in framing Jesus as wholly separate and distinct from God, such as by talking about Jesus “in relation to God” as in the above-cited excerpt. Such sloppiness, if due to genuine confusion or simple lack of carefulness, could be understandable from a layperson who lacks much deep instruction in the faith. But not from someone the church has set aside for the especially theologically trained role of ordained ministry. Let alone a bishop.
In the case of the experienced, well-educated Dr. Oliveto, it seems less likely that this significant shift in language was simply not intentional.
By saying that Jesus Christ “was as human as you and me,” Oliveto makes clear that she means far more than that He began His physical life on Earth as an embryo in His mother’s womb or that He had a gender and ethnicity or that He was just as susceptible as we are to such limitations as hunger or fatigue. She jettisons traditional portrayals of Jesus understanding His own mission while He diligently pursued it to instead paint Jesus as being no less confused, uncertain, ignorant, and even fallible than any of the rest of us. As part of the basis for this new view of Jesus, Oliveto prefers the authority of an individual mysteriously referred to as “one person” over the authority of the New Testament writers and church tradition.
The famous 18th century hymn addressed Jesus as “Rock of Ages,” invoking the biblical metaphor of God being a secure rock for us. But Oliveto’s Jesus offers no such security. Instead, she urges seeing Him as akin to an imperfect, unstable, unsolid “hunk of clay,” needing to be continually reformed and changed for halting attempts at improvement.
Oliveto makes clear that her Jesus is one who was not only deficient in his knowledge of facts, but one who was also morally faulty. Oliveto’s Jesus is NOT a sinless Jesus! Instead, her Jesus was guilty of such sins as “his bigotries and prejudices.” According to Oliveto, He needed to “learn” some moral truths that he had evidently never learned before the Syrophoenician woman taught them to him, so that “he changed his mind” to accept that she was right and he was wrong. Oliveto insists that Jesus had to “come around” and experience “conversion,” which she says that he did thanks to a human teacher he met in the course of his earthly ministry.
Meanwhile, Karen Oliveto actually warns against those of us who “create an idol out of” Jesus Christ. The commonly accepted theological definition of an idol is something other than God, usually something created by human hands, improperly worshipped as a god. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary broadly defines an “idol” as “a false god.”
So by definition, it is impossible to idolize Jesus if He is truly God. So by definition, Karen Oliveto’s words mean that Jesus Christ is NOT god, and that to worship Him as such would be to worship a false god!
The biblical passage that provoked Oliveto to reveal this part of her theology is an admittedly challenging one. Frankly, if I were doing an evangelistic one-on-one Bible study with a non-Christian friend, this Matthew 15:21-28 passage (paralleled in Mark 7:24-30) would not be my first choice for where to begin.
Oliveto is hardly alone in feeling unsettled by how Jesus initially refused to heal a Syrophoenician woman’s demon-possessed daughter, and how He first offered a brief proverb metaphorically identifying Jews as children and Gentiles like this woman as dogs. On a side note, Oliveto’s reaction is a bit curious given her own history of taking a more positive view of the alleged benefits of demon possession.
In any case, Oliveto moves rather quickly from a superficial reading of the passage to conclude that it shows that up until that point, Jesus sinfully “had made his life too small” and that Jesus needed to “give up his bigotries and prejudices” and learn that “the heart of God and the care of God” extends also to Gentiles, a truth of which he was evidently unaware before that moment.
In rushing to make this rather negative judgment of Jesus Christ, Oliveto appears to have been uninterested in how faithful Christian commentary over the years has interpreted this passage in ways that make Jesus come across as less harsh, such as by suggesting that Jesus was using commonly used language of that context in a playfully bantering way, translating the word Jesus uses for “dogs” as referring to household pets rather than the more negative word for strays on the street, or how a careful look at His words shows them at least subtly hinting, “your turn will come.” And despite Oliveto’s presuming to sit in judgment over which congregations in the UMC qualify as “bad churches” and which are “really United Methodist” in their theology, she appears to have not bothered consulting John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, part of the UMC’s official Doctrinal Standards. If she had, she may have benefitted from considering Wesley’s remark on Christ’s initial refusal to grant the woman’s request: “He sometimes tries our faith in like manner.”
Much of the knee-jerk discomfort we in the twenty-first century initially feel upon reading this passage stems from how utterly unfamiliar Jesus Christ’s particular context of ancient Near Eastern Judaism, and the divisions from other people groups in the area, are for us today. But if we cannot be bothered to understand the Jewishness of Jesus then we cannot really understand Jesus.
One need not agree with everything Karl Barth said to appreciate the wisdom of that influential theologian’s famous remark, “In spite of all the allegorizing and generalizing interpretation which it has not escaped to soften the offence, the Old Testament still remains from generation to generation to ensure that the particularist aspect of the Christian message directed to the world, the simple truth that Jesus Christ was born a Jew, is never lost sight of, but constantly survives the irruption of all too generalized views of the man Jesus.”
Also revealing is how this passage prompts Oliveto to ask, “Where is the gentle Jesus, meek and mild….?” As with many clergy within the echo chamber of liberal United Methodist caucuses, she appears to be counting on a widespread amount of biblical illiteracy among her audience. The question of how fair an assumption that is to make about much of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area can be discussed elsewhere.
But the all-too-common portrayal of a consistently weak, inoffensive, undemanding “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” bears little relation to the actual Jesus we meet in the four Gospels. Just ask the temple money changers, Pharisees, or others with whom Jesus was hardly “gentle,” including his own disciples. Just imagine the courage and stamina involved in directly facing down the devil himself, while Jesus was at the end of his physical limits. And how many biblical figures can you name who are recorded as talking as much about Hell as Jesus?
In the first book of his beloved Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis includes a dialogue with a little girl who is intimidated about meeting the lion Aslan (who allegorically represents Jesus) and asks if he is “safe.” In response, she is told “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Elsewhere, it is made clear that Aslan is “wild” and “not like a tame lion.”
In contrast to the Jesus of historic, traditional Christian faith, including the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards, with such teaching as noted here, Karen Oliveto preaches a gospel of a Jesus who is so much more tame, weak, inoffensive, and above all, manageable.
This Jesus offered by Oliveto offers so much less to inspire, let alone command, awe, reverence, worship, and submission.
For Oliveto, maybe that’s her point.
In case Oliveto’s August 19 message gets taken down, I am pasting its full text here:
Below is Bishop Karen’s weekly message to the Mountain Sky Area:
Praying for the clergy and laity of the Mountain Sky Area as we prepare to come together for worship.
I love the Gospel text of this week’s lectionary–Matthew 15:21-28. You know the story:
A Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded with Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus ignored her. The disciples get involved, “Jesus, can’t you do something? She’s driving us crazy.” Jesus tells them no.
Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” Jesus gave in and the woman’s daughter is healed.
Jesus, Jesus, what is up with you? Where is the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the one who said, “Let the children come to me”? What happened to Jesus, the one who said, “Consider the lilies”. Where did his compassion and love go?
But as I ponder the story, as I look at the verbal jousting between Jesus and this female who is considered less than human because of her gender and ethnicity, I can’t help but note how Jesus comes around.
Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him. But this story cracks the pedestal we’ve put him on. The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. Like you and me, he didn’t have his life figured out. He was still growing, maturing, putting the pieces together about who he was and what he was supposed to do. We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God.
As one person put it: “Jesus wasn’t a know-it-all, he was also learning God’s will like any human being and finally he changed his mind…if Jesus didn’t have to know it all innately, but rather could grow into new and deeper understanding through an openness to God’s people [even those he formerly discounted], maybe if Jesus could change his mind then maybe so can we!
As he encountered this one who was a stranger, he comes to a fuller sense of the people he is to be in relationship with. He is meant to be a boundary crosser, and in the crossing over, reveals bigotry and oppression for what they are: human constructs that keep all of us from being whole. He learns that no one, no one, including the outsider, the foreigner, the hated, the misunderstood, the feared, no one is outside of the heart of God and the care of God.
In his conversion, by changing his mind and acting outside of tradition, by treating the woman as a person and responding to her needs, Jesus is willing to stand against culture and social norms and risk his status and power. It is this action of giving up that Jesus gains the most: because of his willingness to be in relationship with one so different, Jesus finds greater intimacy with God. The two go hand in hand.
This is the heart of the story. This is what offers us hope. If Jesus can change, if he can give up his bigotries and prejudices, if he can realize that he had made his life too small, and if, in this realization, he grew closer to others and closer to God, than so can we.