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Diocesan Convention: Roger Ferlo's first keynote

Mark16These are my (incomplete and personal) notes from Roger Ferlo's first keynote address to the Diocese of Maryland's convention. Ferlo is the author of Opening the Bible from The New Church's Teaching Series. He's got a Ph.D. in literature, and he's definitely a good reader of texts. Being the gracious gal I am, I've forgiven him his occasional caricaturing of historians (most of which I didn't bother to record in my notes).

The official topic of this talk is "The Authority of Scripture, but the unofficial title of this talk is "The Bible: Who knows what it means?." Who has the authority to interpret scripture, and who holds interpreters accountable? And why does it matter so much? What makes this text different from all other texts, that we spend so much time pondering questions like, "who knows what it means?" Who cares what it means, and why?

You can read the rest by clicking below to bring up the extended post.

You're going to hear precious little from me today about "three-legged stools," that homely image derived from the thought of Richard Hooker, who championed that scripture, tradition, and reason together are legs of a stool upon which our knowledge of God rests. Most people who use the image of the three-legged stool have never read a word of Richard Hooker, nor have they ever tried to assemble a stool. Usually the leg of scripture is several inches higher than the others, and people slide off. Some add a fourth leg of experience in hopes that this will help, but usually it only makes matters worse. The more legs you add to a stool, the harder it is to keep it steady. So let's put the stool a way, and give Hooker a rest, while we try to describe scripture's authority in other ways.

As priest, teacher, and writer, my passion has been to show people how to open the bible in Anglican style. Most people I deal with are very busy, so getting them to read it as I think they ought to read it is a daunting task. Most Episcopalians are, to be honest, bible-shy -- and rightly so, given the evangelical culture in which many are steeped. So they're bible-shy, and only quasi bible-literate. The bible maintains its peculiar aura of divine authority that creates problems for us when we try to read it on our own. As a working-class Roman Catholic growing up, my memory of the bible is of a gorgeous book on top of my grandfather's chest of drawers -- wonderful to look at, and almost never opened. And yet that household was deeply faithful.

That kind of aura is intimidating, and it tends to stop conversation. We stutter like Moses in front of the burning bush. And one of the problems is with the word "authority" itself. We're wary of authority, and of authority of books -- and even more wary of authoritative readers of books. We're wary of those who insist that the word on the biblical page is simple and readily understood. That leads to literalist dead-ends and feeds secular prejudice about Christian simple-mindedness. It's also problematic to say that layfolk without an academic background can't understand the bible. It's not fun to be treated like an illiterate.

Episcopalians recognize that the bible wields authority, and take comfort from that recognition, but exactly how the bible is supposed to wield its authority isn't clear to us, especially when there are urgent questions about sex, careers, money -- our deepest joys and aspirations.

The state of affairs has been exacerbated in recent history in places like Lambeth in 1998, and in the Windsor Report. The Windsor Report may change everything for the better. But it's the continuing impact of what happened in Lambeth in 1998 -- and not just in the resolution about sexuality passed there -- that's got us now. Perhaps the majority of North American bishops at Lambeth then were taken by surprise by what happened there, but it was clear long before then that many bishops from other parts of the world were schooled in how to read the bible in ways that were alien to many North American bishops. For many, the answers to life's deepest questions are quite straightforward in biblical terms. Scripture is, for many Christians, a social, political, and moral charter -- a source book for ethics that provides perfectly transparent rules for personal and community conduct. That is a claim that the bible is primarily an instrument for moral enforcement and social control. It's a powerful claim that's had a tremendous impact in Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- much to the good, but for many, such a claim betrays a troubling disregard for historical context.

These texts do speak to us, but not necessarily in the direct way that biblical instrumentalists imagine it can. But what are the alternatives to this way of reading?

The reductionist alternative is scarcely more appealing. It empties scripture of any moral force. Many point to the Jesus Seminar as the villain of the reductionist school. Many of the arguments the Jesus Seminar makes are widely accepted by scholars, but some are controversial in scholarly circles. It's not all that wild to say that the church wove much of the tradition about Jesus as their needs and circumstances evolve. Casting votes, as the Jesus Seminar does, and presenting the majority or plurality view as it does is exegetical arrogance. It implies that only the "authentic" sayings of Jesus can be regarded as having authority, but the Jesus Seminar largely ignores the writings of Paul, which chronologically precede the gospels. The fire drawn by the Jesus Seminar has unfairly discredited biblical scholarship in general for many.

Both styles of reading the bible -- the instrumentalist approach and the reductionist approach -- distort what I believe to be the bible's true authority. The two opposing camps make for strange bedfellows, as both are strangely literalist or even fundamentalist, rendering the bible as authoritarian rather than authoritative. The instrumentalists turn verses or whole books of scripture into ideological litmus tests; the reductionists substitute scientific or scholarly authority for the religious integrity of the serious reader. The fragment the text as catastrophically as any fundamentalist proof-texter. Both of these diminish rather than enhance the authority of scripture.

Real authority is not about diminishment, but about growth. The word 'authority' comes from the Latin augere, which means to make fruitful, to nurture, or to increase.

As Cranmer wrote:

Blessed Lord, who called all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The Venerable Bede took his cue from St. Augustine, and compared the faithful reader to a cow chewing its cud. (How very English! How earthy!) The word he used: ruminatio -- rumination, making the text a part of your very body and your very being. A text that gives authority and has authority is a text that feeds us. This understanding of authority is counter-intuitive. It's hard to think of a reductionist or an instrumentalist bible as a source of nourishment. Even the word 'authority' gets bad press and has a bad feel for many. It can be felt as oppressive or demeaning. It's annoying to have someone appeal to "the authority of scripture" to say that you're sinful, wrong, and misguided.

I would like to live in a world and in a church in which no one is ever allowed to start a sentence with "the bible says ..." The bible says a lot of things, not all of which are edifying, consistent, or true to the life we live today. To say the bible speaks with one voice about anything often misrepresents the text and its authority.

You don't get far if you derive scripture's authority from the supposed relevance of its rules. Tendentious interpretations of any scriptures in these days can quickly become the rationale for ostricism, exclusion, or even terrorism, violence, or revenge. These are treacherous times for bible readers. How can we let the authority of scripture feed us again? Don't start with Lambeth conferences or Jesus Seminars, but with people like us. Scripture reaches its nourishing power when it's fully enfleshed in the life of a worshipping community. We invest the bible with too much authority, and by doing so, we invest it with too little. When we invest it with too much authority -- sola scriptura ("by scripture alone") thinking -- a slogan favored by people who want to read scripture in a cultural and liturgical vacuum --

Scripture contains all things necessary to our salvation, but we are not saved by scripture. We can use a kenotic theory of scripture -- kenosis meaning "emptying out," as in Philippians 2. For us to reinvest scripture with life-giving power, we must consent to see our old notions of scripture emptied of the kind of blinkered stance that represent the worst of approaches. The current impasse in our readings of the bible stem from a failure of incarnational imagination. The New Testament is not so much concerned with who Jesus historically was or what Jesus historically did as it is about who Jesus IS, to them and to us. The New Testament has all of this sensual interaction with Jesus -- a woman anointing Jesus, the beloved disciple resting his head against Jesus' chest, Jesus washing his disciples' feet and inviting Thomas to touch his wounds, as well as the risen Jesus inviting his disciples to a fish-fry on the beach. The communities served by Paul experienced those stories enacted, as in the waters of Baptism, anointing with pungent oil of chrism.

Don't mistake the script for the performance, or eat the menu instead of the meal. When you open the bible, wake up and smell the ointment! Relearn how to read the bible with your whole body, and free yourself from the tyranny of the eye/I -- both the tyranny of the visual and of the ego. The whole idea that reading the bible is a transaction between the eye and the brain is a modern construct. Reading silently and privately is a modern experience, prone to solipsism and isolation. In the ancient world, reading the bible was a public experience, of the ear as much (or more than!) the eye. Even if you were reading by yourself, you would read aloud. This would have been Jesus' and Paul's experience of scripture. Scripture was first and foremost the sound of a living voice. The experience of reading was seldom divorced from the sound of a voice and the living presence that voice represents, even when reading in solitude. We'll talk more tomorrow about how the reshaping of reading by private consumption of printed books.

As Anglicans, our experience day-to-day of the bible is inseparable from our experience of life in the body, with the sensory fullness of liturgy and life in the physical plane. What's most distressing about the neo-biblicism going on now is the paucity of imagination involved -- unless we're talking about imagining Armageddon. It's an offense against scripture, against the authority that nourishes and enriches our life in Christ. It's treating the bible as a collection of words, divorced from the reality of a compassionate voice. And for all who are flocking to that kind of reading, there are many more who take one look at it and run in the opposite direction.

So, what to do?

Encourage a renewal of biblical literacy and competence among ALL of us. We need to get excited about the biblical story, and about the myriad ways in which biblical writers style their work. We need to read the bible the way the bible reads itself. We need to learn to recognize and revel in the particular, even peculiar, strategies we see in the bible of telling stories. In a way, we need to learn to be more text-centered than even the instrumentalists or the reductionists. And we need to renounce whenever we can the kind of blindered scripturalism that often infects the dealings of the church. We need to stop being deferential to those who claim they know exactly what the bible says. The Windsor Report at its most memorable calls us to do this. Page 30, section 61 of the Report:

The current crisis thus constitutes a call to the whole Anglican Communion to re-evaluate the ways in which we have read, heard, studied and digested scripture. We can no longer be content to drop random texts into arguments, imagining that the point is thereby proved, or indeed to sweep away sections of the New Testament as irrelevant to today's world, imagining that problems are thereby solved. We need mature study, wise and prayerful discussion, and a joint commitment to hearing and obeying God as he speaks in scripture, to discovering more of the Jesus Christ to whom all authority is committed, and to being open to the fresh wind of the Spirit who inspired scripture in the first place. If our present difficulties force us to read and learn together from scripture in new ways, they will not have been without profit.

Scripture embodies the diverse center. It doesn't always agree with itself. It contains voices of different cultures, from vast gaps in time. Scriptural stories are impatient with closures and legalism. It doesn't seek to control the outcome of our conversations, but invites us to further conversation -- with scripture, and among ourselves. If scripture has a history, it also has a present, expressed liturgically today in song and story, and it is a living, growing tradition, as generations add their song and their story in turn.

Look at the ending of Mark's gospel. Look at the bottom of the page, at the footnotes. There are at least three different endings, some of which are marked as doubtful even in the manuscripts in which they appear. Note the use of the word "authorities" in the footnotes to mean textual traditions. There are different ones from different regions, with widely differing perspectives. They remembered the story in ways complementary and sometimes contradictory. Endings were appended to give it more of a sense of an ending, of closure. It's a weird ending, especially in Greek. The last sentence ends with the word gar, meaning "for." You're not supposed to end a sentence with that word. The book ends with no ending.

We need to reaffirm powerfully and clearly as a church the power of the scriptural imagination. It's incarnated for us not only in liturgy, but in our arts, architecture, and even in our electronic media. I'd like to see our seminaries restore what used to be called a liberal imagination -- a love for the arts, for rhetoric, for the "thinginess" of God's creation. We need to strive for what I'd call, in the spirit of John's gospel, a rabbouni spirit of Jesus as teacher, where reading in the shul is a conversation that encourages playfulness in how we approach the text. The authority is the living voice of the teacher, and it asserts itself by the authenticity of her/his own being. It's in the teacherly role that the Word can really be enfleshed in us. Our task is to enter the conversation, to enter the story with our stories to make the Story our own.

May 6, 2005 in Churchiness | Permalink


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2 questions-

1. What was the reaction by the convention?
2. Did the diocese vet this address beforehand, thereby placing the diocesan imprimatur on its contents?

My reaction: what dreck! Especially his etymology of "authority".

Posted by: Tom Roberts | May 8, 2005 3:37:17 PM


Maryland is a diverse diocese, and as one might expect, a few people seemed really upset with or annoyed by the address, a few seemed really excited by it, and many seemed to be concentrating more on how nice it is that convention is now two days instead of three, and on wishing that it was down to one day, or maybe just a particularly rainy afternoon.

As for vetting, I have no knowledge of that one way or another, but I'd be extremely surprised if the address were vetted. That's not something conference organizers of any kind tend to do with a keynoter's address; if you don't trust the person to say something helpful, you invite a different speaker whom you trust. As for imprimaturs, I've never heard of the diocese doing that sort of thing. Does your diocese?

Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | May 8, 2005 9:58:42 PM

Sarah- In the case of Ferlo I think Maryland might have failed to secure the cannon to the ship's structure before loading and firing.

My diocese, Rio Grande, doesn't seem to either have the time or money for such luxuries. The diocesan website has the 2003 convocation summary (which your "comment spam blocker" won't let me post)

That convocation came right after GC03 and Bishop Kelshaw did the introit himself, as at that historical junction a bishop ought to seize the day as it presents itself to deal with the issues before his flock, instead of relying on supernumeraries.

Different diocesan leadership style, I suppose.

Posted by: Tom Roberts | May 9, 2005 6:39:41 PM

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