Exaggerated Exegesis (Part Two on Wacky Patristic Interpretations)

In my last post, I chatted a little about some of the wackier interpretations of Scripture that I’ve come across from the patristic era. I ended on a pretty positive note regarding it’s legitimacy: “Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open.” Despite me wrapping things up with a happy ending, it was still an open question in my head. Are these interpretations legitimate? Or are they wrong?

I remember one friend telling me, “Well, they don’t violate any of the creeds. Why can’t the Holy Spirit speak in creative, unexpected ways in the Scriptures? I think churches today have a lot to learn about exegesis from the Church Fathers!” Now, by no means do I want to “roast” his answer. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s far from what I suggested last week. Nonetheless, it struck me as troublesome when I heard someone else say it. There are a lot of things that the creeds don’t address at all. Should wacky Bible readings get a pass just because they don’t violate a creed? And it sounds really neat to say that we have a lot to learn from the creative interpretations of the Church Fathers, and on some level it’s certainly true, but if something they did looks a little weird, why not question it? Nobody is above critique! We aren’t obligated to repeat patristic mistakes out of a sense of duty to tradition. That’s coming from someone who identifies as a “tradition guy.” The name of the blog is “Classic Christianity,” for crying out loud! But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that we’re giving the Church Fathers a pass on some stuff that we would absolutely reject if someone tried to do today.

Imagine me going into a church and saying this during a sermon on Sunday morning:

“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them are alone.” (Song 4:2)

Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burdens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love of God and neighbor, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. J.F. Shaw

I legitimately don’t think I could get away with that. People in the pews would squint their eyes and say, “What? That’s not what it says at all. What’s wrong with Pastor Vincent this week? He’s going off the rails!” If I try to do that or anything like it without name dropping the quote’s originator, it looks like total nonsense. Meanwhile, if I name drop the author, “As the great Saint Augustine said…” I might get a pass based on his name value alone. If an interpretation is totally reliant on it’s famous originator to sound reasonable, is it really reasonable at all?

On some level, I guess my protestant expectation of plain sense readings is shining through. I have the voice of Luther in my ear, “Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.” Not that I hate allegory as much as he claims he did, but I do expect an attempt to interpret Scripture to seem… well… reasonable. If Scripture says that a woman had nice teeth, it seems distinctly unreasonable to say that it clearly and definitely means that the church ought to have sinless saints. But if I’m rejecting that, then I have to say what I think IS a reasonable reading of that passage. What does it mean that this man’s beloved had nice teeth? What religious truth is being conveyed by God in these words? How does that edify my soul? Apparently, Martin Luther, famed allegory hater, said that the whole of Song of Songs was actually an allegory about politics (an interpretation that doesn’t seem to have caught on). I can’t find what he said about the teeth specifically without paying a lot of money for a book that I’ll only use once for this express purpose, but I get the sense that white teeth probably had an equally weird meaning in his mind. Go figure.

NO ALLEGORY! Well… maybe just a bit….

There’s some passages that are incredibly hard to interpret. Since I’ve been doing a sermon series at church about Song of Songs, those are the ones that have been nagging at me lately, but there’s lots of similar passages throughout the Bible. Sometimes, literal readings of these passages seem so shallow that we have to turn to allegory. The Church Fathers gave us a wealth of allegorical readings to consider, but I think it’s fair to be a little critical of them. The interpretive moves that they made are often wild by our modern standards. Last time, I was enamored by their creativity. After some thinking, I still respect their writings. I’m just a little more cautious about borrowing from them without a nice, critical look at the primary text itself.

Sanctify this Work: George Herbert’s The Altar

I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!

George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”

I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:

The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.

George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3

That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.

In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):

It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.

I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.

Life After Injustice in the Church

In a tearful, faltering, sobbing voice, the man cried out, “What should I say to my boy if I took money from you for our shame?”

Captain Snegiryov, Brothers Karamazov

Captain Snegiryov isn’t a major Brothers K. character at all.  He is publicly beaten by the hotheaded Dmitri Karamazov for no particular reason and yanked around Town Square by his beard.  All the townspeople laugh at the sight, except for the captain’s son.  He begs the crowd for help with tears in his eyes before kissing Dmitri’s hand and begging for mercy.  When Alyosha Karamazov, Dmitri’s kind brother, finds out what happened, he tries to make amends with Captain Snegiryov.  The man is poor.  He lives in a wretched shack.  Half of his family has disabilities, and none of them are capable of working.  200 rubles would change his life, and Alyosha (who runs in some particularly wealthy circles) wants to help… but the scene ends in disaster.  The captain realizes that taking money from one of the wealthy Karamazovs after his humiliation would prove to his son that the rich can do whatever they want to the poor, and justice is dictated by the powerful.  In a deeply conflicted moment, he throws the money on the ground at Alyosha’s feet and storms away in tears.  His integrity demands he not accept their money, but that same sense of integrity has doomed him and his family to a life of poverty.

His cry for justice resonated with me this week as I’ve been pondering how we address injustice in our churches.  Anybody who’s been in a church knows that sin happens, often in a way that never gets addressed.  Time passes and circumstances improve, tempting us to move on from our frustration and live into the new, comfortable norm.  But should we?  Does forgiveness involve letting go of injustices that will never be accounted for?  Or is accepting the new post-frustration reality the equivalent of taking our 200 rubles and selling out? 

A few asides before I investigate: I want to avoid the standard response of, “well, if mistakes were made in the church, you should seek out a leadership position and do your best to make sure they don’t happen again.”  Churches are massive entities, often with deeply entrenched power structures, and change takes years of work to realize.  Being wronged shouldn’t condemn the victim to years of work in the hope of making a difference.  And what about people whose talents lie elsewhere?  Should they be pressed into leadership because they were sinned against?  I hope not.  I also recognize that as a person in church leadership, I’ve made wrong choices. Not all of my decisions were the right ones, or even fair ones for that matter, and it definitely frustrated people. Leadership is hard.  Every decision has the chance of being unpopular or erroneous.  I hope the ones that I’ve made haven’t pushed anyone out of churches I’ve served in, but I am as much a perpetrator of injustice as I am a victim. I don’t get to rail against the authority, since I’m a part of it.

Onward to the question!

It’s not that sin within the institutional church is especially rare.  Gobs of famous saints were persecuted by other Christians.  There’s St. John of the Cross (thrown in prison), John Chrysostom (exiled), Evagrius Ponticus (anathematized after death and followers persecuted) , John Calvin (exiled, attacked), Martin Luther (exiled, anathematized, attacked)… you get the picture.  Churches are supposed to be beacons of hope!  The hands and feet of God!  The joy and goodness of the future on Earth now!  But here are some of our famous saints, beaten down by the very hands that were supposed to hold them up.  Some of the frustration can obviously be chalked up to the fact that they were usually persecuted by people who didn’t recognize them as properly Christian, but that doesn’t change the fact that institutional churches (full of people that bare the title ‘Christian’) have historically caused a great deal of injustice against the very people that they now recognize as worth listening to.

What do we do with the memory of injustice after we are hurt?  How do we honor our integrity while moving on?

All of this got me to go pick up Martyrs Mirror.  I stumbled across this Anabaptist classic during a day of community service about 10 years back.  I was assigned to washing windows throughout the town with a Mennonite lady.  I wasn’t much good at washing windows.  I swear I tried my best, but I was a 21 year old guy with a messy apartment and she had spent over 10 years as a housekeeper.  As you can imagine we had different standards of cleanliness.   I’d see a spotless window and she’d see a mess. In any case, we got to chatting as she politely redid my work, and somehow she brought up Martyrs Mirror.  I told her I’d never heard of it and she insisted that every Mennonite household owned one before sharing some stories from it.

It’s turned out to be a great tool to help work through some of this.  The early Anabaptists (a broad category of Christians including modern Mennonites and Amish) were pretty much killed by everyone when they first popped up in Reformation-era Europe.  It didn’t matter if you were Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic; you probably hated Anabaptists.  Martyrs Mirror is their book of remembrance.  Here, they weaved together the accounts of their persecution with the historical stories of persecution from Christian tradition, both in the institutional church and outside of it.  On one page, there’s someone who died for witnessing their faith in a region where Christianity was punishable by death.  On the next, you’ll find someone who was destroyed from within the church for getting behind an unpopular doctrine or making the wrong enemies.  They moved beyond the triumphal stories of people who won handily in the church through sheer prestige and charisma (lookin’ at you, Augustine) and sought out the stories of the wronged to find solidarity.  In these pages, there’s no sense that good theology or good people will win the day.  If anything, bad theology and bad people win far more often than you’d hope!  Real Christians face real pain, both in the church and outside it. Faith isn’t always about thriving materially in this world, so much as witnessing beautifully to it.

The intro cuts right to the core of the work:

Most beloved, do not expect that we shall bring you into Grecian theatres, to gaze on merry comedies or gay performances… True enough, we shall lead you into dark valleys, even into the valleys of death (Ps. 23:4),where nothing will be seen but dry bones, skulls, and frightful skeletons of those who have been slain…Yet to look upon all this will not cause real sadness, for though the aspect is dismal ac-cording to the body, the soul will nevertheless rejoice in it, seeing that not one of all those who were slain preferred life to death, since life often was proffered them on condition that they depart from the constancy of their faith.

Martyrs Mirror, 10

You’re not about to get your happy worlly show.  That’s right out.  Instead, you’ll get something morbid: death.  But this death is livelier than anything that Homer could churn out.  This is the vital death of Christ that we have the privilege of living out.

The imagery moving forward is distinctly triumphal.  These are heroes, fighting in glorious combat, seizing the ultimate prize. At one particularly noteworthy part, they reference “the knight of Christ” (no idea who he is) who was killed.  The resulting theological poem, Accolade to a Champion, is downright Arthurian:

Climb up your golden height, champion of the band of holy souls, who followed God’s red banner of blood, in oppression and in the midst of misery; where naught but the smoke and vapor of human burnt sacrifices ascended to the clouds; yet thou, hero, didst go before them, yea, didst fight thy way through the strait gate to the wide Heaven.

Martyrs Mirror, 11

It’s worth mentioning that Anabaptists are traditionally peace churches.  All violence is considered to be a sin.  It’s better to die than to kill.  Here, traditional heroic imagery of the brave knight is subverted to make the murdered victim the hero of renown.  It’s certainly not an unheard of stylistic choice, but it seems especially powerful when it’s used by someone for whom violence was never an option.  You know that at they genuinely believe, even in tremendous suffering, that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom.8:28).

There’s a million martyr stories in this book, but one that I’ve always held up as particularly awesome (and that the window washing Mennonite particularly enjoyed) is the story of Dirk Willems.  Dirk got arrested for being an Anabaptist in the Catholic Netherlands.  He managed to escape the prisons by making a rope out of bed sheets, and he was running across a frozen lake to his freedom with a guard hot on his heels.  Dirk was so malnourished from his time in prison that he could run across the ice without trouble, but the guard had eaten well while Dirk starved.  The ice broke beneath him, and he fell in, screaming for help.  Dirk heard the guard’s cry for help and turned around. He pulled the drowning guard out of the freezing water.  His choice to help was a costly one: he was recaptured, tortured, and burned at the stake. He saved the man who doomed him.

There’s not many stories that illustrate injustice as well as this one, but Dirk isn’t remembered because the Catholic Church must now be punished, or because Anabaptists are now obligated to create structures that somehow correct the problems that occurred in this instance.  The remembrance isn’t a burden; it’s a joy.  Dirk was a hero.  We remember him because we hope to be like him, and ultimately, like Jesus.

What do we do with our injustices?  How do we remember them?  Maybe we don’t.  We remember the good that was done in spite of the evil that was wrought.  That’s not to say we’re barred from seeking change or finding a new community to be with if the hurt is too much to bear, but we can’t count on the institutional church to be just! It is limited by ignorance, sin, and flaws just as much as anything in this world.  The only way to move forward after injustice is the hardest way of all: be the Christian we’re meant to be.  Forgive the sinners. Shine with all the holiness that God offers and know that regardless of what our church did or what it does in the future, we are free to be what God called us to be: a saint.