Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fr. Barron's Small Interpretive Universe

In  the daunting task of evangelizing the culture, even Fr. Barron gets called out on strikes from time to time. His uncharacteristically supercilious dismissal of Episcopal Bishop Katherine Jefferts Shori's recent sermon on Acts 16 betrays a surprisingly small interpretive universe. Coming from perhaps a feminist perspective, the bishop searches the margins of the text to deconstruct Paul's exasperation, an interesting technique that shifts the focus from a traditional reading of the story to something edgy and disconcerting. Whether the bishop is a systematic feminist or not is really not the question here: rather, Fr. Barron's reading comes to the fore, particularly the liberties he himself takes with the text.

Perhaps Fr. Barron's reading hinges on one point: his translation/interpretation of the slave girl's 'spirit.' Though he asserts this spirit to be evil, a 'demon', the text is spectacularly unclear about this: Luke gives us a "spirit of divination" (pneuma pythona): the term pythona, though a hapax legomenon in the Greek New Testament, is used rather casually here, and given Luke's available diction, not charged with evil, demonic possession, even though it very likely suggests pagan cult. The text gives no particular reason to associate this spirit with other evil spirits of possession elsewhere in Luke-Acts, or for that matter, in the NT. The ambiguity inherent in this single occurrence of pythona opens the door to Shori's use of the text, while it underscores Fr. Barron's rather stingy critique of "beggar[ing] belief."

I am less interested in the bishop's approach and assertions in her 'loopy' sermon than in Fr. Barron's missed opportunity to really engage the culture here. Here was an entry into postmodern thinking, a road not taken. Why not look on the margins of the text, on the margins of biblical society: Jesus seems to do that all the time. While I would not play with the loaded gun of Jesus's anachronistic feminism, I would note that love does indeed seek out the margins. And while the bishop's remarks might be over the top, I see no reason to beat her over the head with her own sermon. Sermons are like that: ephemeral, plastic, contextual.

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