Back when I taught hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret Scripture) to freshman undergraduates at a Christian college, I invariably opened the first lecture with a story I had heard from Moisés Silva. According to the story a sophisticated minister of a mainline Protestant church in Philadelphia's wealthy Main Line preached a sermon on Acts 5:1-11. This famous story narrated in that text tells of the unfortunate demise of Ananias and Sapphira after being rebuked by St. Peter for lying about the extent of their largesse in giving to the apostolic community pot. Of one thing there can be no doubt: the author, Luke, considered their deceit to be, in effect, a lie against the Holy Spirit (5:3), and their subsequent death visible evidence of God's judgment on the pair (5:5, 11). Indeed, Luke deliberately juxtaposes the behavior of Ananias and Sapphira with the contrasting generosity of Barnabas, who sold a field he owned and presented the proceeds to the apostles for distribution among the community (Acts 4:32-37). In Luke's theological vision, the judgment of the couple demonstrated quite clearly that there was no room for such characteristically fallen human behavior in the newly minted eschatological people of God, whom Luke labels the "church" for the first time in this text (5:11). But for the sophisticated Philadelphia minister the point was otherwise. The real "bad guy" of the story, in his view, was Peter, whose verbally abusive invective was to blame for what was, in effect, the pair's death-by-bullying.
My students, almost all of whom came from very conservative ecclesial backgrounds, were invariably shocked and puzzled about how anyone could have derived such an interpretation from such a seemingly straightforward text. And for that reason the illustration was a perfect one, introducing them in a hurry to the vagaries of postmodernistic approaches to the book they had matriculated to study. For years I thought I would never hear another example of such a patently eisegetical (i.e., reading one's own ideas into the text) interpretive practice from a "respectable" churchman/woman. But that was before I encountered the sermon preached by Jefferts Schori at All Saints Church, Curacao, on the 12th of May. Citing the story of St. Paul's encounter at Philippi with a demonically-controlled clairvoyant servant girl (Acts 16:16-24), the bishop not surprisingly uses the incident as a polemic against the apostle's supposedly small-minded, petulant refusal to see the girl's "spiritual awareness" as "beautiful" and "holy":
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.Sadly, this is not the first time I have written about Jefferts Schori and the pathetic state of the Episcopal Church in the USA of which she is Presiding Bishop (see here and here). This is particularly sad for me as one who claims a heritage in the Church of Ireland and whose own father was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, one wonders if it is simply too late for this branch of the Anglican communion that clearly prefers the spirit of this age to the Spirit who inspired Scripture (2 Tim 3:16), that would rather abide by the canons of political correctness than those of responsible hermeneutics. For, as even an elementary Bible student should quickly recognize, her use of the biblical story is simply ludicrous if meant to be an example of how to interpret Scripture. The Book of Acts, as I'm sure the bishop was taught (at least I hope she was), is Luke's account of how the Holy Spirit worked through the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, to spread the gospel and build the church from Jerusalem, through the entire eastern Mediterranean region, all the way to Rome. Paul, to put the point bluntly, was Luke's hero (and likely companion during much of the narrative), the ultimate apostolic example, not one whose witness to the gospel is a prime target for deconstruction and condescending postmodernist (and in this case, implicitly feminist) criticism.
A moment's reflection will reveal that Jefferts-Schori's criticism of St. Paul is triply ironic. In the first place, she prefers to speak of the girl as one having "spiritual awareness" and who perhaps "share[d] in God's nature" even "more so" than the apostle did. But Luke, the only witness we have to this event, identifies her as having a "spirit of divination" (Acts 16:16) that was subsequently exorcised successfully by the apostle. Surely the bishop has the "spiritual (or at least historical) awareness" to realize that divination is not only condemned quite explicitly in the Torah (Deuteronomy 18:10), but is given negative narrative coverage in the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 as well. Or are we to suppose that the Episcopal Church, in the person of its presiding bishop, is now open to the occult and divination of any kind? One hesitates even to ask the question.
Second, noting that the girl was "quite right" in "telling the world that [Paul] and his companions [were] slaves to God," Jefferts-Schori considers the apostle's response as irrational and short-sighted. Why, she wonders, would Paul silence one whose words apparently showed her to be on the same side as he? Indeed, after the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his household, Jefferts-Schori waxes contemplative: "It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her." Well, I would like, as it were, to see the good bishop and raise her with an example straight from the Gospels featuring none less than Jesus himself. Would she, I wonder, similarly critique her Lord? Mark records an event from early in Jesus' Galilean ministry in which Jesus encountered a man in the synagogue at Capernaum who was indwelt by an "unclean spirit" (Mark 1:21-28). The spirit, using the man as a mouthpiece, cried out, "I know who you are—the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24). The spirit's utterance was, from Mark's perspective, theologically correct (cf. Mark 1:1; 15:39). Nevertheless, Jesus promptly rebuked it and said, "Be silent, and come out of him" (Mark 1:25). One suspects Jefferts-Schori would not be so cheeky as to criticise Jesus for this silencing of theologically accurate publicity, but on what basis?
Third, and most ironic of all, Jefferts-Schori, the avowed "progressive" who is concerned above all to eradicate the injustices perpetrated on the marginalized, has apparently forgotten that Luke explicitly speaks of the exploitation of the girl's "ability" by her owners for their financial gain (Acts 16:16). Failing to make this elementary observation, the bishop prefers to see Paul's imprisonment as a consequence of his own refusal to recognize the girl's spiritual awareness. Luke will have none of such skybala, however. For him the arrest of Paul and Silas was due to the spite of the owners, who saw their cash cow silenced with the spirit's exorcism (Acts 16:19-24). One may try, but one cannot have it both ways.
In a sense, the remarks of Jefferts-Schori are just one more piece of evidence for the hatred that so many supposedly "tolerant" liberal Christians have for St. Paul, and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to discredit him and his witness. But the more basic issue here is one of Christian definition. What does it mean to be a Christian? What role does Scripture play in determining that definition? Historically, being a Christian meant commitment to Christ in the context of the scripturally-controlled regula fidei ("rule of faith"). Today, however, large swaths of the western church seem to think they can follow certain Jesuanic principles (mainly love of neighbor, anti-legalism, so-called "tolerance," and care for the poor) and cast off the rest of the inconvenient bits like St. Paul as mere husk fit for the rubbish heap. To do so, of course, makes it much easier to adapt to the spirit of the age. But doing so decontextualizes the thrust of Jesus' teachings and jeopardizes the legitimacy of the entire enterprise.
People such as Bishop Jefferts-Schori have every right to believe as they do and to propagate their views. What they don't have a right to do is to pass off such views as Christian. As St. Augustine wrote in the late 4th century: "You ought to say plainly that you do not believe the gospel of Christ. For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel" (Contra Faustum, 17.3).