Posted by: mattcolvin | May 25, 2013

Beautiful Gifts of Spiritual Bondage


One of my church’s bishops, the Rt. Rev. George Fincke, posted a link to this article by TEC bishop Daniel Martins reacting to presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s now notorious sermon on Acts 16 from Curaçao. Bishop Martins says:

I’m going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. …Such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider’s point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops. It is, rather, the job of bishops, speaking as consummate insiders, to equip the baptized faithful to listen to the voices from the margins and discern between true prophets and false ones.

Perhaps because of Bishop Martins’ personal and professional relation with KJS, he has not said nearly enough. The real problem with KJS’ creative misinterpretation of Acts 16 is not that she is standing “outside the tradition looking in” or that she is a “prophetic voice that challenges the establishment”, but that she is speaking, with an authority ostensibly derived from Christ, a message that overturns the gospel of Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers. This anti-gospel is characteristic of liberal Christianity, and it has tragic and horrible consequences for the victims who occupy, in our modern societies, the same position as the girl whom Paul freed from demon-possession in Acts 16.

Tertullian famously said, of Marcion and Valentinus, that “One man perverts the Scripture with hand, another its meaning by his interpretation.” KJS has gone for Valentinus’ strategy here. When we read a story, we do so with ideas about who is the good guy, what the goal is, and what the obstacles and “bad guys” are. Narratologists call these the “actants” of a story. Our experience of a story’s “actantial” workings typically happens at a pre-reflective level, with our guts more than our heads. That is why stories are so powerful. It is also why KJS’s misreading of Acts 16 has provoked such a powerful response. Reading a story against the actantial “grain” will typically produce either humor (like the Three Little Pigs retold from the wolf’s perspective) or else a firestorm of criticism. Needless to say, KJS’ sermon was entirely in earnest, so it provoked a firestorm rather than chuckles.

To Bishop Martins’ credit, he recognizes that KJS has done violence to the Scripture at the actantial level:

In Acts 16, the author (presumably Luke) portrays Paul and Silas as the good guys, the slave girl as the exploited victim, and her “owners,” along with the demon that possessed her, as the bad guys. What Paul did, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit, was to liberate an oppressed person.

But has Bishop Martins recognized the causes and the consequences of this? Has he recognized that this sermon is emblematic of the general approach that has now ruled TEC for many years? If you stand against the Scripture’s own actantial and moral values, so that you deliberately misread the text, then you are rebelling against Jesus’ authority exercised on you via Scripture. And this is a typical move, perhaps even THE hallmark, of liberal “exegesis”. Other famous examples could be adduced. (I think, for instance, of Walter Brueggemann’s evaluation of David’s and Solomon’s establishment of a central sanctuary for YHWH in Jerusalem as a bad thing.) The problem is not just that the sermon is wrong, but that the sermon’s wrongness is symptomatic of a theology that celebrates sodomy and other sorts of wickedness, and which has for many years now systematically persecuted faithful clergy and dioceses in the Episcopal Church. In this particular sermon, the presiding bishop was driven by this outlook (1) to overlook the fact that a “python” is a demonic power, (2) to blame a righteous apostle of Jesus for his righteous act of deliverance, and (3) to say nothing about the real oppressors who kept this girl in literal slavery for their own gain.

As Bishop Martins recognizes, Christian pastors must speak “as the oracles of God” — that is, in accordance with the story Scripture tells, not against it. The gospel is the declaration that “God has disarmed the rulers and authorities” – among whom are the demon that possessed this girl’s mind in Acts 16, and the slaveowners who possessed her body – “and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Christ.” (Colossians 2:15 ESV) The presiding bishop has taken a story about that triumph of the gospel and has made it into a lesson about how we need to see the bondage of this girl as a “gift of spiritual awareness”. This is an anti-gospel, which exchanges the victory of Christ for an accomodation with the very powers of spiritual darkness that He came to destroy. Think of the human-esque pigs laughing evilly at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

And this is where TEC has been headed for many years, especially with its stance on abortion rights and homosexuality. Who are the real victims? Men trapped in a sexual lifestyle that dishonors their bodies; women who are deceived or coerced into committing murder via abortion. What would KJS tell them? Presumably that their condition ought to be celebrated and recognized as good, just like the girl with the “python” in Acts 16. Anyone who says otherwise is “putting himself in prison” by his “unwillingness” to see this apparent bondage and sin as “something beautiful and holy”. Thus, for instance, the hounding of Bishop Lawrence of SC and other conservative Episcopal clergy is justified, because they are oppressors who refuse to recognize the beauty and holiness of sodomy.

That is the real lesson to be learned from KJS’ sermon: theological “liberalism” does not lead to liberty. Rather, it perpetuates bondage to the principalities and powers. Christus Victor came to destroy the works of the devil. Calling the works of the devil “beautiful and holy” is a way of saying that they don’t need to be destroyed. It is a way of painting pretty rainbows on our chains.

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Responses

  1. […] this, we are freed to read the biblical text against itself, to deconstruct it, to read against the ‘actantial grain’. Such a text does not really tie us down to any particular reading (such an approach often appeals […]


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