Is Ephesians 6 really about Thatcher’s strength?

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Whenever my Washington Journalism Center students start covering speeches and major public events, always I tell them that they face three major journalistic challenges. They have to:

(1) Get the words down, whether in professional quality notes, on a recording or, ideally, both.

(2) Understand the words, by which I mean that a reporter has to figure out what people are actually saying. This is not always easy because experts in various fields — from national politics to football, from science to theology — tend to speak in their own professional codes. (Example: You know, when my quarterback saw that their back zone was flooded, he knew I’d be able to take my man on a skinny post and beat him to the flag.)

(3) Translate the words, out of the specialty language and imagery of the event into sidewalk-level language that readers will understand.

Here’s an example: Long ago, I went to a movie theater to see an advance screening, for liberal mainline Protestant clergy, of Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Right up front, I knew that I needed to find someone who knew the subject material behind the movie and could help me evaluate it. As it turned out, the studio had used a National Council of Churches mailing list when preparing the invitations and, thus, the dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral was there. I quickly learned that he had read the original Nikos Kazantzakis novel in the original Greek and he was glad to offer his insights into this rather shallow movie (which left him both amused and furious at the same time).

So what, pray tell, does all of this have to do with the Washington Post coverage of the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?

Well, I am glad that the Post team attempted to capture some of the religious content of the service. Honest.

However, I do wish the professionals who produced the story had found themselves an authoritative voice, or two, to help them understand key moments in this very deep and defining religious rite. There was no reason for the reporter to go it alone when attempting to discern the meaning of some of the language used in these event.

There was no need, quite frankly, to guess at motives, to guess at the deeper meanings of some of the language. Why not find an expert or two and let them help with translation? In particular, it was important — in light of the deep divisions in Great Britain about Thatcher and her legacy — not to slap political templates over the content of this religious service.

Like what? Read on, carefully:

In accordance with Thatcher’s wishes, the service was quintessentially British, including pieces by English composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a blessing. Cameron and Thatcher’s American-born granddaughter, Amanda, offered readings.

Amanda Thatcher, 19, drew particular accolades for her composure as she read a New Testament verse that spoke to her grandmother’s strength: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

The Rev. Richard Chartres, a family friend and the bishop of London, told the mourners that Thatcher had requested not a typical eulogy, laced with her political accomplishments, but a more simple and personal address. He delivered just that, reflecting on a young boy who had once written Thatcher asking whether prime ministers, like Jesus Christ, never made mistakes. Thatcher’s life, Chartres acknowledged, had been stormy. But as her remains rested in the church, he said, now “there is a great calm.”

“At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician,” he said. “Instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling.”

So what is the problem there?

Well, I do not know who chose that particular reading from the Book of Ephesians, chapter six. Thatcher was raised as a Methodist and this service was taking place in a setting at the highest levels of symbolism in the Church of England (St. Paul’s Cathedral). It is possible that this text was listed among the optional readings for a funeral rite. Needless to say, the press team for that event could have pointed a reporter toward experts sure to have an answer.

However, I do know this: The Post team quoted one snippet from a very complex and powerful piece of scripture and, suffice it to say, the content of that text had nothing to do with the “strength” of Thatcher, especially if the strength implied is linked to politics.

Yes, this is a passage about spiritual struggle, but it is about a struggle in the heart of the believer as well as her or his struggles in the complex reality that is life in the real world. It is about finding strength OUTSIDE the self, in the power of the Holy Trinity, once one has learned that no one is strong enough to carry on spiritual battles alone.

In other words, for believers who know scripture, the ultimate meaning of the passage read by Amanda Thatcher is pretty much the opposite of the interpretation — note the lack of attribution behind the “that spoke to” language — offered by the Post team.

The bottom line: The interpretation appears to be political, not liturgical or scriptural. Surprised?

Seeing the full Ephesians text read by the young Thatcher (offered in the classic King James Version language) certainly helps:

10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.

11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;

15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;

16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.

17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:

18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;

So what are we left with here?

Get the words. Check.

Understand the words. Fail.

Translate the words. Fail.

Be careful out there. It helps, when in a foreign land, to have a translator.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Phil

    I am not convinced the Post got it wrong. The point of the passage (as a whole) is that one is to be strong after putting on the armor of God (so to speak). That is still consistent with the Post’s statement that the passage “spoke to her strength.”

    You read the Post to be saying “a verse that spoke to her strength [because she was a strong woman all by herself]” but it could also mean “spoke to her strength [because she was a strong woman through God's armor.]“.

    The Post doesn’t tell us why she was strong, and I don’t see why one should necessarily attribute the “wrong” reason to her strength. At the end of the day, the passage does speak to “her” strength–strength that she very well may have achieved through God’s armor.

    I don’t see any clear error here.

  • tmatt

    PHIL:

    The absence of the God reference leaves you with Thatcher’s strength alone.

    This would be like saying Obama has a brilliant understanding of what it means to be a mother and to deliver children.

    That would mean he has this understanding/strength all by himself.

    It could mean that he has this understanding because he listened and learned from his wife.

    To point toward the second conclusion, you must say that specifically, not leave it up to the understanding of the reading.

    Words matter.

  • Meg

    I don’t know that we can necessarily conclude that the reading wasn’t chosen to be about her earthly strength and her role as prime minister. Think of all the weddings you’ve been to where 1 Corinthians 13 has been read and ask yourself how many of the couples who chose it did so because they thought it was about romantic love. Whoever chose this reading for Thatcher’s funeral can’t have been unaware of the associations that verse 12 in particular would bring up with her role as a world leader; I find it hard to imagine it wasn’t consciously done.

  • tmatt

    MEG:

    You are making my point FOR ME. If what you are saying is true, the journalists are supposed to verify that and report it with on the record information.

    Why speculate? Ask the questions. Print the answers.

    That’s what journalists do. At least, that is what they are supposed to do.

  • northcoast

    I’m assuming that “strength” is the reporters word here. Armour provides protection and effectiveness. The soldier had to be strong just to carry his shield and yield his sword.

    I would think the choice of the reading, deviating from the usual verses about consolation, faith, or resurrection, must have reflected Dame Thatcher’s world view.

  • tmatt

    North coast:

    What is your source showing this is a deviation? What are you quoting?

    The standard meaning of the scripture still must be reported.

    • northcoast

      I read the Church of England Order for Funerals on the web. “Yield” should have been “wield.” I’m parsing words but I wouldn’t try to interpret this passage.

  • George Conger

    TMatt — Ephesians 6 is not among the approved readings for Church of England funeral or memorial services. Here is the list:

    http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/pastoral/funeral/readingspsalms.aspx

    Readings not on the list my be added, but this raises the question why a particular reading is offered. The family, or Mrs Thatcher, had a point to make with this reading. What was it?

    The author’s unfamiliarity with what was taking place extends beyond Scripture to descriptors “The Rev. Richard Chartres, a family friend and the bishop of London,” Should be the Rt Rev not the Rev. Rt Rev is a bishop, the Rev a priest or deacon — and as an aside — it would be the Rt Rev & Rt Hon in Chartres case as Bishop of London.

  • Cicero

    I saw another article that referred to it as “a martial sounding passage” and I thought: “Ephesians 6? That isn’t a martial passage. That’s the one about the importance of clinging to God and His truth in the face of the world’s sin and wickedness. (Which fits Thatcher perfectly). What are they talking about by calling it martial? Why so vague? It’s as if they aren’t even sure what it means but don’t want to reveal their ignorance so they’re making something up that sounds related and is vague enough that it could mean many different things.”

    Journalists a generation ago were secular, but immersed in enough Christian culture that they usually got what was being said. Today’s journalists are completely ignorant, regularly show that ignorance, and seem to have no interest in correcting that ignorance.

    • northcoast

      My Oxford Annotated Bible has the note, “God’s armor and the Christian’s warfare” for vs. 6:10-20. It sounds martial to me.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Not to dispute tmatt’s point, but it seems to me that Eph 6:12 is wrongly applied to Thatcher’s “strength” as it points more to her motivations. After all the verse is about who the adversary is than who the protagonist is. If she had clear social and political goals in her career and especially in her actions as Prime Minister, it was because she saw reality in spiritual as well as physical terms, that it was part of the largely unseen battle between Good and Evil, with her ostensibly on the side of the Good. The larger context of the verse could then speak to her “strength” but this is not at all clear.

    At the very least a few words are missing. “…spoke to her grandmother’s strength of character…” “…the strength of her grandmother’s convictions…”

    But tmatt seems right to me in that the article is unclear on this matter and needs more. Citing at least verses 11 and 13 as well, and being clearer as to how the cited verse(s) apply to Thatcher’s convictions and career, seems warranted if one is going to cite the Bible at all.

    It’s funny to me that the Post would associate a politician, whose policies and views and adversaries are well known, with this particular verse, which so clearly identifies the adversary.

  • tmatt

    Northcoast:

    And you are aware the JIHAD has spiritual connotations linked to Islamic prayer disciples, as well as, in the hands of some, martial overtones?

  • northcoast

    Yes. It seems natural for any struggle to be discribed in martial terms even when no actual call to arms is intended. I am used to the subject verses being associated with terms like “spiritual warfare” and “prayer warrior.” These have martial overtones but are obviously not physical. The New Oxford Annotated Bible note kind of jumped out at me.

    I can understand that Jihad has a meaning that is not associated with aggression or warfare.

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