Friday, January 20, 2006

People of Faith Who Produced a Book

Back in October, the American Anglican Council published yet another of its blustery self-aggrandizing statements about being the "real" Episcopal Church as opposed to us queer-loving, revisionist, heretical Episcopalians who are slowly but surely moving past the homophobic past of our tradition to join the 21st CE. The AAC article entitled "American Anglican Council Condemns Via Media’s Planned Coup of Biblically Faithful Dioceses" spoke of churches being "faithful" to the Bible, a concept I find increasingly nonsensical and foreign to my understanding of what it means to be a Christian generally.

In the past few weeks I've been reading Robert Price's Deconstructing Jesus as well as Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Both make the point, repeatedly and convincingly, that the Bible reflects the winners in the internecine struggles of the early church, faint echoes of the losing traditions remaining within the Bible the winners eventually sculpted to fit their developing theology as well as in time capsules from the dissenters such as the Nag Hamadi scrolls of Egypt's once flourishing Thomasine community.

What has struck me in response to these scholars whose biblical scholarship and attentiveness to detail (I think one must have a bit of propensity for anal retentiveness to be a biblical scholar) have proven both overwhelming as well as compelling is that any notion of Christians being a "people of the book" is at best an overstatement, at worst an ahistorical naïve assertion. The reality is that Christians - regardless of their understandings of what that self-designation means - aren't people of a book. At best we are people shaped by a book of our own making at the same time we are the heirs of the people who produced that book. The book is one of the many products of the faith community. At most what we are is people of a faith tradition whose many artifacts include a book which has reflexively and dialectically impacted the self-understanding of that tradition (per Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy).

The AAC polemic was published in the local Diocese of Central Florida Via Media listserv, a group who seeks to prevent the secession of the diocese into the clutches of the fundamentalist Anglican churches of Africa who will be more than happy to take American money in return for validating American homophobia. I attach my own polemic in response to theirs, polemics, after all, meaning words of war. As with all polemics, asbestos wear is strongly suggested:

In our discussions of what a symbol means, I sometimes point toward the flag we have been required to display in our classrooms at UCF and say "Some people argue against flag burning by saying that people died for that flag. If that's really the case, I say people who would die for a piece of cloth ought to. We need to weed out the gene pool of people like that." I then quickly add, "But that's not really what they mean, is it?" From there we are able to discuss how symbols point beyond themselves to something incapable of being reduced to words.

I feel similarly when I hear people talking about being faithful to a book, even a book as important to us as the Christian Bible. If people want to leave the Episcopal Church because it isn't faithful to a book, let them. We need to weed out the ecclesial gene pool of limited, rigid faiths like those.

The Bible is an artifact. It is the product of a faith community and reflects that community's experience of the divine. Clearly it also has a dialectical impact on that experience - our experiences are impacted by its contents and the understandings thereof. But, the notion that a church has to somehow be faithful to one of its own products is analogous to Levis-Strauss saying it must be faithful to the original designs in their blue jeans. It loses sight of the cause/effect, creator/created relationship.

I believe an approach to scripture which evidences a hermeneutic (a means of reading and understanding) of generosity is valuable. The men and women of our faith's history made good faith attempts to render their experience of the divine as best they could given the nderstandings of reality they held at the time. We should appreciate their work and their vision by reading and considering it as generously - and as critically - as possible.

Being faithful to scripture means being willing to read it with an accounting for what we know about the universe today, and with a spirit of gratitude for the G-d from whom all being springs. We do not honor that G-d by engaging in intellectual dishonesty and thus defiling the gift of critical reason. And we do not evince a true generosity toward our forebears by requiring the artifacts of their faith to bind us to worldviews and cosmologies that they themselves would not hold were they living in our world today. While I believe we must show our forebears the respect and gratitude they are due, we do not do that by providing them with an absolute veto over our faith understandings today. They had the first words on these subjects, albeit important words, but not the final word. That remains our responsibility, even when we attempt to avoid it through cop-out attempts like being "biblically faithful."

Harry Coverston,Orlando


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

  • If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
  • Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.