Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ecclesiology & Hermeneutics

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity. 
- The Second Coming by William Butler Yeates
Recently the blogosphere, facebook, and twitterverse have all been abuzz with thoughts on the new book by Rachel Held Evans entitled A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It didn't take long for folks like Desiring God Ministries and The Gospel Coalition to post their critical reviews. Already we're seeing push-back to these early reviews from others such as this response from The American Jesus. I'm not really interested in going into any of the details of the book. While I don't particularly like the gimmicky approach to the book and the fact that it is sort of set up to ridicule a certain stereotype, I do appreciate the opportunity it provides to reflect a little on the Biblical interpretation and the Church.

G.K. Chesterton once described America as a "nation with the soul of a church." This seemed right for a nation whose culture had been so profoundly shaped by two populist, evangelical "awakenings" in the 18th & 19th centuries.  But while "soul" can refer to that invisible and incorruptible feature of one's identity; "soul" can also mean something more like "ghost."  And while Chesterton certainly meant it in its former sense, I suspect that today the latter sense prevails. Not unlike Flannery O'Conner's description of the South as "Christ-haunted" rather than "Christ-centered."

One thing the awakenings did for Americans was to solidify an ecclesiastical conscience. Regardless of how many people actually attended church on a regular basis, most people considered themselves to be Christian and most people recognized many Christian teachings as normative for a decent and civil society.  In other words, for most Americans the phrase "the Christian thing to do" was equivalent to the phrase "the right thing to do." In spite of this hegemonic "Christian" conscience, the Christian churches in American remained increasingly decentralized. One could perhaps argue that this conscience provided a surrogate ecclesiastical unity that incentivised continued disunity among the churches. Even the Roman Catholic Church in America is considered merely one denomination among many. This hegemonic conscience provided the unifying and normalizing power typically found in a church tradition.

The upshot of today is that this general Christian conscience in America has largely evaporated. What is left is an American form of Christianity that lacks the ability to sustain a common narrative and hence, has no power to provide the unity that once existed. One victim of this disunity is the inability to read the Bible together. It is noteworthy that the reviews more critical to Evans' book focus in on the misapplication of interpretive "principles." In the absence of a church's normalizing authority, critics seek out an "objective" set of principles to which everyone can adhere. The problem with this, as Alasdair McIntyre has so convincingly pointed out, there simply is no rationality and hence no objective principles absent of some tradition. Isaiah 1:18 begins famously with the call to "Come, let us reason together." Without a greater sense of unity, there will be no common sense of rationality.

So for me, Evans' book should not be dismissed too quickly. Oh, I don't suggest following her gimmicks nor do I encourage people to take pleasure in the ridicule of others. But it is a worthy example of the tremendous problem we face as American Christians.