Some years ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that perfectly lampooned the loopy ideology of “inclusion” that has come to characterize so much of the Christian world.Read the rest.
It showed a neat and tidy church, filled with an attentive congregation. The pastor was at the podium, introducing a guest speaker. “In accordance with our policy of equal time,” he said, “I would like now to give our friend the opportunity to present an alternative point of view.” Sitting next to him, about to rise to speak, was the devil, dressed perfectly and tapping the pages of his prepared text on his knee.
I was put in mind of that cartoon when I read a sermon delivered recently by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Addressing a congregation in Curaçao, Venezuela, Bishop Jefferts Schori praised the beauty of (what else?) diversity, but lamented the fact that so many people are still frightened by what is other or different: “Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil.” Now I suppose that if one were to make the right distinctions—differentiating between that which is simply unusual and that which is intrinsically bad—one might be able coherently to make this point.
But the Bishop moved, instead, in an astonishing direction, finding an example of the lamentable exclusivity she is talking about in the behavior of the Apostle Paul himself. In the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find the story of Paul’s first visit to the Greek town of Philippi. We are told that one day, while on his way to prayer, Paul was accosted by a slave girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling” (Acts. 16:16). This demon-possessed child followed Paul and his companions up and down for several days, shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Having finally had enough of her, Paul turned to the young woman and addressed the wicked spirit within her, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts. 16:18). And the demon, we are told, came out of her instantly.
Up until last month in Venezuela, the entire Christian interpretive tradition read that passage as an account of deliverance, as the story of the liberation of a young woman who had been enslaved both to dark spiritual powers and to the nefarious human beings who had exploited her.
But Bishop Jefferts Schori reads it as a tale of patriarchal oppression and intolerance. She preaches, “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.”
The Bishop correctly points out that the girl was saying true things about Paul and his friends, but demons say true things all the time in the New Testament. Think of the dark spirits who consistently confess that Jesus is the Holy One of God. That a Christian bishop would characterize the demonic possession of a young girl as something “beautiful and holy” simply beggars belief.
But things get even more bizarre. We are told in Acts that the girl’s owners are furious that Paul has effectively robbed them of their principal source of income and that they therefore stir up controversy and get him thrown in prison. But on the Bishop’s reading, Paul is just getting what he deserved.
From time to time I've run into interpretations of Biblical events which would seem, similarly, to be utterly at odds with the story itself. (The one that takes the cake, from my point of view, is the school which reads the Book of Ruth as a paean to Lesbian romance and fidelity between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, and as such an endorsement of gay relationships.) I can't help wondering if this level of "creativity" in interpretation springs from people reaching a type of belief in which they really don't see Christianity as historical at all, but rather a set of nice and inspiring stories which we can interpret in whatever way we want because, after all, we're far to sophisticated to think about thing like whether or not they are true.