Friday, May 17, 2013

Presiding Bishop's "Delusional Exegesis"

A recent sermon by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on Acts 16:16-34 has quite rightly generated fierce criticism.  Before quoting what she said, it's important to first read the Acts passage:

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Timothy Fountain does an excellent job of succinctly laying out the many ways in which this is "one of the Bible's best [passages] for preaching the liberating power of Christ."  And he notes that this is "a passage that even progressives should find inspiring on several levels."  

The contrast of such an appraisal with the Presiding Bishop's sermon could not be starker.  Here's what she said:

We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.

There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves.  But 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! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.
An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God. The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand. This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.

So according to the Presiding Bishop, this story from Acts is not about the liberation of a slave girl from demonic possession and from degradation and exploitation at the hands of her "owners."  Instead, it's about the apostle Paul's narrow-minded bigotry and his inability to see the spirit of God at work in the girl.  (Would she say the same thing about Jesus and his ministry of exorcism?)  Instead of reading this passage as a demonstration of the liberating power of Jesus at work through Paul, the Presiding Bishop reads the passage as Paul's oppression of the girl. 


This is such a jaw-dropping example of eisegesis that it's hard to know how to respond.  Too many words come to mind, including ridiculous and embarrassing.  The Presiding Bishop is a very careful and intelligent person.  So what in the world possessed her to preach this sermon?

What's happening here is the exploitation of a biblical text in service to a theopolitical agenda.  Given what she says in the first paragraph I've quoted from her sermon, the Presiding Bishop suggests that anyone who doesn't buy into that agenda - anyone who holds to the traditional, orthodox understanding of such matters - is likewise afflicted with the same narrow-minded bigotry as Paul, and thus in need of enlightenment.  

One person who commented on the sermon at the Episcopal News Service website sums all of this up very well: "This is quite possibly some of the most delusional exegesis I've ever read in my life.  I'm sorry, but this sermon is not a Christian sermon."


bob said...

The sermon says the spirit in the girl was the Holy Spirit, Paul was wrong to deny it. It also says same sex marriage is good. Surprised? Now, what was that about the preacher being "careful" and "intelligent"? Compared to what?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi bob. You ask, "Compared to what?"

I would answer: compared to the other sermons I've heard or read by the Presiding Bishop. I say that as one who has written blog postings critical of things the PB has said and done in the past. As troubling as some of those things have been, I just don't recall anything as off the wall as this particular sermon.

TJ McMahon said...

"So what in the world possessed her to preach this sermon?"

The answer may be in the passage itself "One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling."

In this case, we have a woman going about proclaiming herself the Presiding Bishop of God's Church, that she and GC are following the "spirit", that the "spirit is doing a new thing", and representing this sermon as the preaching of His Word. Perhaps the "spirit of divination" has learned something over the last 2000 years about PR and propaganda.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for your comments, TJ McMahon.

The more I've thought about this sermon, the more a section of L. William Countryman's book Good News of Jesus comes to mind. Countryman is discussing the passages in the Gospels where the religious authorities accuse Jesus of being "possessed by Beelzebul" and casting out demons by the power of "the prince of demons" (Mark 3:22). In part of his response to this accusation, Jesus says, "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" (Mark 3:29).

Here's Countryman's take on Jesus' response to his accusers (emphasis added):

"What exactly was this unforgivable sin that the religious authorities committed (and which they - or we - are always in danger of committing)? It was the sin of calling good evil in order to protect your own moral and religious superiority."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments on this. I read the sermon on ens last week and was flabbergasted. It is such a pot pourri of issues I treated it like a girl fight in the high school quad-better to just walk away.

danielhixon said...

I've seen this all over facebook lately, and being discussed (ridiculed) far beyond the usual Anglican or Anglican-interested commentators; I've seen this one linked by Roman Catholics, Methodists, Evangelicals and others as well. Nice to see that (besides the PB) there is such a catholic convergence of interpretation when it comes to this passage.

I would expect even some of the more left-leaning/liberationist theologians at my own seminary would have been annoyed by this sermon; I wonder if they will see it as a logical outgrowth of some of their own "fast and loose handling" of the Sacred Text?