Story, Scripture, and sacred texts (3)

The Commission on the MCC Statement of Faith recently posted a very helpful and beautifully written article about the Scriptures. In my last entry, I responded to their first question about the nature and function of sacred texts. In this entry, I respond to the second.

  1. How do you define/identify “sacred text”? (The entry below this one.)
  2. What has been your experience with sacred texts and their use?

Again, I distinguish between Scripture and sacred text, but will respond to both aspects.

I grew up in a conservative Evangelical denomination in Canada called The Christian and Missionary Alliance. This community of people belongs to the Holiness Movement, and especially in its initial formation had a particular emphasis on bodily healing as part of what Christ offers the world through his atonement on the Cross. I grew up attending a fundamentalist version of Scouts called AWANA, where I learned a great deal of the Bible through story-telling and ‘sword drills’ focusing on memorization. I also had “Pentecostal highlights” in my journey, especially after an experience of what’s called the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, which in my case was accompanied by speaking in tongues. When I was 18, I attended a Vineyard congregation for almost two years while attendeing Bible school. During my coming out procress, I was attending (but then had to leave) Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. I know the Holy Spirit has a perverse sense of humour because she dropped me among liberal/progressive Anglicans in 2003, and then I had my first exposure to the MCC in 2005. I completed the M.Div. degree from an Anglican faculty of divinity in 2012. My current communities are an Anglican parish and the MCC in Toronto. I summarize my journey this way because it highlights different experiences of reading Scripture and sacred texts.

In my current understanding, Holiness Evangelicals and Pentecostals read Scripture while assuming that it will facilitate an immediate, personal experience of the Spirit. Since believers have the Spirit and the mind of Christ, any believer able to read should be able to apply the text immediately to one’s own heart, to do a sort of (preferably daily) examen of oen’s life before God. Reformered Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the need to hear the text in community and in historical context, partly because the human heart is so dark and prone to deception. (The formal academic settings in my life take a more Reformed approach.)

The Vineyard congregation of my experience was the first place where I was able to integrate the more academic understanding I was gaining (source criticism of the Torah, the Kingdom of God as ‘the time and place God reigns’ as opposed to ‘heaven after we die’), with the practicality of Pentecostalism–they fully expected the Gospel stories of healing and expulsion of demons to show up in their ministry times!

The problem, for me, was that Reformed and Holiness ways of reading often compete with each other. When I first became aware of my attraction to other males/men, immediately I had a sense of conviction and fear. There came a point where I couldn’t see myself included in any of God’s promises, because if I didn’t fight this thing to the end, I would “not inherit the Kingdom.” Communities like the Anglicans, willing to read the Bible in the complexity of its historical and canonical context, were (in my experience) almost unwillling to expect an immediate experience of God when dealing with the text–and certainly not something as dramatic as a healing or speaking with tongues! (There are exceptions, but the vast majority of charismatic Anglicans are not inclusive.)

In Anglican liturgies, it is only the Protestant canon and the Apocrypha authorized for reading. It is an extremely aural experience–though some parishes print the readings in the bulletin, most expect the congregation to ‘hear’ the word rather than to read it silently. This was extremely liberating for me, because I could listen to Scripture as a Story to find myself in, rather than a rod of God’s punishment, a rule-book for examen.

To this day, I still struggle with ‘personal devotions,’ not because I don’t want to soak myself in Scripture, but because I now know that the voices I encounter immediately are not always the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the voice is my own pain. Sometimes the voice is parental. Sometimes the voice is social conditioning. Sometimes–especially if I ‘hear’ harsh accusation–I experience the voice as demonic. And sometimes I hear nothing except my own voice, sometimes wise, sometimes confused, sometimes angry. Recently, reading The Message–a paraphrase formatted like a novel–is a great help to me, and does not set off as many of my old Pentecostal/Evangelical triggers around Scripture.

Sacred readings–including Scripture and other sources–at MCC Toronto often make me uncomfortable (and I speak as a reader), because there seems to be minimal expository preaching of Scripture, and certainly little connection to a progressive but orthodox understanding of Jesus the Christ. I am not saying the preaching is poor! Rather, explicit connections between the text and the sermon are not made or remain unclear in some cases. Readings from the Qu’ran or A Course in Miracles (for example) make me uncomfortable because, though the message from a particular section may be true, these documents as a whole attempt to undermine the integrity of the Gospel, not least because they make a low or New Age Christology acceptable in my community and beyond.

In a world where Scripture is a weapon, yet most people are not familiar with the basic stories in the library, maybe we could challenge ourselves to unpack it more explicitly, to quarrel with it, rather than to avoid it or use sloppily deployed language about “the Bible as metaphor”? Speaking as an English major in my undergrad, I often cringe when people, but especially preachers (!), use literary language incorrectly or without sufficient explanation. (For example, some people don’t seem to understand the difference between a literal reading and being literalistic. Or they don’t explain that there are different kinds of metaphor, and that metaphors of whatever sort always have a referent.)

(In making statements like this, I understand that I am among the most theologically conservative at MCC Toronto–and that I have academic privilege–but I deny that I am a fundamentalist in my reading of Scripture. It’s unfortunate that I feel tremendous pressure to make that denial in MCC contexts. Progressive Anglicans think I’m a weird hybrid, but at least the distinction between and evangelical and a fundamentalist seems understood by many.)

I would like to feel supported in my interactions with Scripture and sacred texts in MCC contexts, because there is so much beauty to unpack. My goal in reading is to give Jesus the honour he is due in my life and in the life of my church communities. I will turn to this more fully as I answer the Commission’s third question in my next entry.

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