Sunday, July 7, 2013

2013.07.07 Interpreting Scripture, Necessary But Dangerous Ministry

On May 12, 2013, in Curaçao, the Dutch island off the Venezuela coast,  Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached a sermon on the text Acts 16:16-34 that raised a theological ruckus. (Source: NYTimes news story, June 12, 2013, Mark Oppenheimer.)

Now how often does a theological ruckus make the NYTimes?  And from a text in the Acts of the Apostles, a book notable for its joyful exaggerations about the high speed growth of the young Christian Church, read evangelism?  Miracle after miracle. And the Holy Spirit Herself notably in charge of this expansion. Who would critique Herself?  Who could find controversy? It struck me as very funny. 

It had to do, of course, with how scripture is interpreted and what scripture means in different contexts. Every generation must interpret scripture for its own time. That’s the point. That’s what keeps it holy—and alive.

So what was the ruckus really about?

Here’s a paraphrase of the biblical account, in brief and with NO interpretation, which is also the point—and the problem.  Scripture leaves room for everyone’s take:

Paul is on the move spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ through Greece with spectacular success, financed by a businesswoman/convert named Lydia. So far so good, but then one day a slave-girl with “a spirit of divination” (seeing beyond the obvious) shouted out,‘These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ ”  The girl followed Paul and his disciple Silas around calling out until Paul got annoyed and ordered the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. Which it obediently did causing the girl’s owners distress because they were making mucho money from her fortune telling. Her owners schemed to have Paul and other Christians arrested and thrown in jail  for disturbing the peace and preaching the rhetoric of conversion.  In prison  Paul and Silas sang hymns to God; a violent earthquake shook their chains loose and all prisoners were free to escape but didn’t—in order to protect the jailer from losing his job or worse. The grateful jailer of course converts, is declared “saved”and he AND his entire household are summarily baptized.  

Instant Christians and we all go out singing and rejoicing!! There you have it.

You see what I mean about Acts? Just the right amount of too many too happy endings!

In the meantime what happened to the poor slave-girl who, thanks to Paul’s pique, had been relieved of the divination gift that was her livelihood?  Perhaps Paul was not really angry at her but at her exploitive owners? Nevertheless, the girl took a hit.

And what happened to Jefferts Schori?  She preached about Paul’s failure to value diversity and to see the girl’s “difference.”  She noticed, as did I, that the girl proclaimed the basic Christian kerygma: “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

Well, duh, I thought to myself. She even used the same slavery rhetoric as Paul used when he preached about Christians being "slaves" to God—and to no other I presume. 

But the Presiding Bishop’s interpretation went viral. Angry Episcopalians flew around cyber space, defending Paul—and patriarchy I might add.  Objectors denounced the Presiding Bishop for her provocative interpretation, questioning even her standing as a good Christian. 

Most of the disgruntled Episcopalians were of a more traditionalist stripe and unhappy with Jefferts Schori’s support of gay and lesbian marriage and her hard line politics and legal stances against dissenting congregations who voted to secede from the Episcopal Church and expected to take their properties with them.  NOT.

But is it not equally a NOT to biblical literalists to stay with a Church that has over-ridden biblical prohibitions against same-sex marriage? Again, a matter of interpretation in context.

You get the picture: a similar extremist tension to that which polarizes/paralyzes our government.

Scholars who were consulted agreed that Jefferts-Schori’s  interpretation was not what the original biblical writers intended. Another duh—also the point of the ongoing tradition of  scriptural interpretation incumbent on the Church. But what does it mean today? 

Are you bored?  I am.  Yet I declare that my vote goes with the slave-girl who: 1) was exploited for her strange gift; 2) turned out to be a proclaimer of the gospel; and 3) was relieved of what the culture of her day thought of as “demonic” but which the text in Acts does not call “evil.” She might have looked on Paul as her abuser not her liberator.

Who, after all, would employ her now? Is there not, from a contemporary point of view, a sexist, possibly ableist, tinge to this text?—and to the extreme reactions to Jefferts Schori’s take? She too is a woman.   

 Jefferts-Schori said of prior generations of interpreters when asked for comment: “They had a limited view, because none of us is God.”

Jesus, I imagine, might take these two women out for lunch, (or to a quiet place) not for reprimand but to listen to their concerns—graciously, inclusively—and thank them for speaking truth to power, each in her own way.