Posted by: mattcolvin | March 11, 2016

Reading With and Against Biblical Narrative

As I prepare to teach the Bible and Biblical languages in Indonesia, I am pondering what the necessary lessons are for the clergy and seminarians of a fledgling Anglican diocese in the making. What is necessary in our day to equip a national church with a strong theological immune system, so that it can detect and refute errors, especially those being propagated by affluent churches in the West?

One of the most powerful theological developments in the last 60 years has been a greater emphasis on Scripture as narrative. I think, for instance, of chapter III.4 of N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, where Wright applies the heuristic diagrams of Algirdas Griemas in order to focus more precisely on different aspects of the parable of the wicked tenants. One of the fruits of such a method is a clear delineation of what roles are played by the various “actants”: viz. that the messengers and the son are on the side of the owner, and are opposed by the tenants; that the owner, his son, and his messengers are the “good guys” and the tenants are “bad guys”. This seems a simple enough point, and yet there are some who miss it.

Wright also uses the folktale about Little Red Riding Hood as a demonstration of his methods. Folk tales of this sort often have very clearly defined protagonists and antagonists, so that much humor can be had by inverting the usual focalization and telling them from the perspective of the antagonist. Indeed, there seems to be a burgeoning genre of inverted folktales: witness The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, “by A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka”, or Eugene Trivizas’ The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, or Trisha Speed Shaskan’s Honestly, Red Riding Hood Was Rotten: the Story of Red Riding Hood as Told by the Wolf (the Other Side of the Story).

Now, we do not want to foist upon Biblical stories a moral clarity or black-and-whiteness that is alien to their own composition. Yet it should be clear in most stories just where moral true North lies. Biblical narrative marks it out for us by the arc of the story as measured by the fixed stars of God’s goodness and His commandments. It clothes its protagonists with virtues and sympathetic traits, and depicts the “bad guys” as being involved in wickedness.

A sensitivity to the ways in which the Biblical authors signal the moral allegiances of characters and actions is essential if we are not to be taken captive by bad theologians. For instance, the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, preached a sermon on Acts 16, in which she offers a reading of the story of Paul exorcizing the “spirit of divination” (Gk. python) from a slave girl in Philippi:

Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!

I have commented on this sermon before. The motives for this twisting of the story by the presiding bishop are fairly obvious: egalitarianism, feminism, an animus against conservatives who attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith, etc. But my concern is with the way she has trampled every moral signpost offered by the story’s text: far from being a deserved punishment, Paul’s imprisonment is justly overturned by God in a miracle; far from being a beautiful or holy gift, the slave girl’s demon keeps her in bondage, not only spiritually (by possession), but also physically: she is a slave owned by human masters who profit financially from her demon-possessed state. Far from doing her an injustice by trampling on her spiritual gift, Paul frees her from oppression. Pace Bishop Jefferts Schori, it is Paul, and not the slave girl’s owners or her demon, who affirms her participation in God’s nature. 

Jefferts Schori offers an attempt to justify her identification of the spirit of divination as a morally good and beautiful thing: she says that “[the demon-possessed slave girl] is telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves.” Yet demons in the gospels always recognize Jesus accurately, and James 2:19 reminds us that demons are all orthodox monotheists. Yet for all that they are evil and to be driven out. 

 Jefferts Schori wonders “what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.” Yet it is clear from the story that this pneuma python was emphatically not the spirit of God, since Paul, when he exorcizes it, says “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” If Jesus had not approved and assented to Paul’s invocation of His name, the pneuma python would not have been driven out. Indeed, within the framework of the Book of Acts, this exorcism must be considered an act, not of Paul, but of the risen and ascended Jesus. Freeing this girl is one of the things that Jesus continued “to do and to teach” after His ascension. If questioned about it, Paul could have replied what Peter replied when asked about his healing of the lame man in Acts 3:

“Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why look so intently at us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus …”

‭‭(Acts‬ ‭3:12-13‬)

Jesus drove the spirit of divination out of this slave girl by the hand of the apostle Paul. Acts 16:18 marvels, “And it came out that very hour.” This is an acclamation of a righteous miracle. Similar words are used to acclaim miracles by Jesus by remarking on their immediacy (Matthew 9:22, 15:28, 17:18).  Yet KJS cannot abide this silencing of a female voice, even though its utterances are made by a demon. 

She claims that Paul’s attempt to “destroy” this girl’s “beautiful and holy” gift “gets him thrown in prison.” But attention to the text shows that Paul’s imprisonment is the work of the slave-owners who had been profiting from the girl’s demonic affliction: “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.” (‭Acts‬ ‭16:19‬) Note also the persecution of Silas, unremarked by KJS.

What we have, then, is a classic instance of a postliberal theologian reading against the text in the service of a progressive/egalitarian theological agenda.

Secondly, consider the remarks of current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the January 2016 gathering of the Primates of the Anglican Communion:

Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

Curry was responding to the vote of the Primates to affirm Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference upholding the Bible’s teaching that sexual relations can only be morally approved within the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman, and to censure the Episcopal Church for its unilateral and unrepentant flouting of that resolution and the Biblical doctrine behind it. 

In Curry’s narrative, the “pain” of sexually active homosexuals at being excluded from the church is of a piece with the pain inflicted on black Americans by racism and slavery. Curry chose his narrative pointedly, since the impetus for upholding Biblical sexual morality in the Anglican Communion comes largely from African bishops. They share his skin color, but they are wholly unpersuaded by his implicit claim that active homosexuals are a righteous group of victims.

Curry’s narrative is the favorite one of the modern Social Justice Warrior: “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” (in the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker). Yet what evidence is there in the Bible for plotting homosexual liberation as a point on that arc? Instead, we have the apostle Paul’s promise that “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” (‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭6:9-10‬) So the very exclusion that Bishop Curry says will “cause pain” is in fact Biblically warranted and will, in the end, be accomplished. If the church does not exclude these unrepentantly immoral persons, then God himself will exclude them at the last.

Rather than simply misreading the Bible’s narrative as Schori did, Curry frames the issue of homosexual sex acts by removing homosexuals from their role in the Bible’s stories (e.g. Genesis 19 or Judges 19, where societies full of homosexuals are depicted as radically depraved and broken) and casting them as protagonists in the Whig history favored by progressive political and theological liberals: homosexuals are righteous victims of oppression, heirs to the mantle of liberation worn in turn by African-Americans, women, and nations under the yoke of colonialism.

Yet in the eyes of the African bishops and their churches in those very ex-colonial nations, the Episcopal Church occupies a quite different role: the African bishops see the pushing of acceptance of homosexuality as a continuation of Western condescension and colonialism. That is why the Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa has repudiated TEC’s Good Friday offering since 2003: 

One of our clergy in Ethiopia states our situation in graphic terms: “We rather starve and not receive money from churches whose actions contradict the scriptures.”

Finally, we turn to the masterpiece of narrative misappropriation: the speech delivered by homosexual TEC Bishop Gene Robinson at the fifth annual prayer breakfast for Planned Parenthood. I quote only a few brief passages:

Our defense against religious people has to be a religious defense… We must use people of faith to counter the faith-based arguments against us…We have allowed the Bible to be taken hostage, and it is being wielded by folks who would use it to hit us over the head. We have to take back those Scriptures…You know, those stories are our stories. I tell this to lesbian folk all the time: The story of freedom in Exodus is our story… That’s my story, and they can’t have it.

Here the liberation of YHWH’s bride from bondage in Egypt — the Bible’s master pattern of salvation, in terms of which even the Christ-event is interpreted in the pages of Scripture — is compared to modern homosexuals’ triumphant escape from the deserved stigma of social opprobrium and the constraints of traditional Biblical sexual morality. In the name of the Exodus accomplished by the hand of Moses, Robinson claims the right to violate the moral laws delivered by Moses (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). Thus, he pits the Biblical story against itself.

It is important that seminarians in fledgling Anglican dioceses in the majority world be equipped to diagnose and refute such abuses of narrative theology coming from leaders of the affluent churches of the West. By learning how to recognize such tricks, they will build a strong immune system and be empowered to resist the specious misinterpretations of North America’s modern Nicolaitan heretics. They will also have a bulwark against other errors and be empowered to read the Scriptures accurately and exposit them faithfully to their parishioners. It is partly to equip the Anglican church in Indonesia with these abilities that I will be going to Bandung, West Java later this year. 



  1. Hello Matt,

    I have friends in Zamboanga who are interested in receiving biblical training. Could you recommend a Bible school or seminary there in Mindanao?

    • I have friends who graduated from Koinonia Theological Seminary, but I can’t vouch for the program there myself.

      Our family is no longer in the Philippines, by the way.

      • Thank you Matt for the reply. I hope to see the Zamboanga brethren this May, Lord willing, and I had wished to drop by Davao to see you. But you’re no longer in the country.

        Let me for now thank you for making this site available. I have learned a lot from your writings here. An Anglican minister ( encouraged me to contact you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s