Ecclesiastical orphans

January 19, 2012

Preaching
guru Fred Craddock, retired from Emory's Candler School of Theology,
often quips: "Anyone who can't remember any farther back than his or
her own birth is an orphan." He was speaking about the postmodern
penchant for individuality and concomitant lack of interest in history
and context that tends to disconnect and detach us from any corporate,
collective, or contextual sense of the self. We're like orphans
isolated and independent, experiencing the world without family,
without memory, without history, without perspective. His point is that
humans require context, historical perspective, to know who they are.
We are not sui generis
creatures, isolated, insular, independent. We are contextual
creatures, connected in a nexus of relationships that includes both the
living and the dead. Lose the context, forget those connections, and
we forget who we are, what we're about, why we're here, and where we're
going.

When
I was a boy one of my favorite memories was spending the night with my
Granny Stacy. She was already succumbing to the glaucoma that would
eventually snuff out the wick on her world, but she turned it into a
game that both entertained me and educated me about who I was. After
dinner, she'd take out the photo album and have me leaf through its
pages reading the names and describing the scenes in the pictures
(Uncle Buster, Granddaddy Stacy, Great Granddaddy Costner, and on and
on). Then she'd tell me the stories behind the pictures, and slowly,
inexorably I would position myself in the nexus that was "Stacy" and
learn who I was and what I was about. When in the morning my father
would arrive to collect me, he'd always ask what we did, and I'd tell
him that we played "Stacy," and he'd say, "I remember that game."

I
had a similar experience some time ago at a little church where I was
doing a Winter Bible Study. A beautiful little church set out in the
country, the forefathers and foremothers of the faith, though poor
farmers mostly, thought it important to place stained glass windows in
the sanctuary depicting events and persons of their biblical and
communal heritage. It was interesting in that the windows mixed scenes
both from the ancient biblical story and from their own congregational
story with the result that you were surrounded by The Story that
reached back to Abraham and Moses and Jesus and forward to today. The
effect on the worshiper was unmistakable: You were positioned
in a nexus of relationships and values and events that began long
before you arrived and would, God willing, continue long after you
departed. It was impossible in such a setting to feel "orphaned" when,
as the writer of Hebrews put it, you were "surrounded by so great a
cloud of witnesses."

The
implications for the Church are far-reaching and broadly applicable,
but nowhere are they more critical than in the way contemporary
Christians handle the Scriptures. The proliferation of translations and
"designer Study Bibles" has made many Christians think of the Bible
exclusively as "my Book." The only question contemporary Christians
ever ask of the Bible is "What does it mean to me?" as though what it means to me is what it means.
Unlike those Christians in that little church surrounded by a
corporate ecclesiastical and biblical context, contemporary Christians
have no sense of the Bible as a shared Book in which we are engaged in timeless conversations with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Jesus, and Paul. We don't care what it meant to Matthew, we only care what it means to me.
There are all kinds of problems with this, not the least of which is
the dilution of the doctrine of inspiration to mean nothing more than
the pagan notion of the "muses." Moreover, the Bible is reduced to a
religious Rorschach inkblot where the only relevant question is, "What
do you see in that passage?" - where the reader
rather than the Bible is really being read. Don't get me wrong. "What
does it mean to me?" is an appropriate question, but only after one has positioned himself/herself in the Christian nexus, the Christian Story, the Christian family album and asked the prior question, "What did the inspired author mean?"

To do otherwise is to be an ecclesiastical orphan.

Originally posted at Disciple's Diary

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