Media’s curiously wrong-headed posession obsession

Media’s curiously wrong-headed posession obsession May 29, 2013

Last week I made fun of that Associated Press story that claimed Pope Francis was “obsessed” with Satan. In the comment to that piece, reader Martha Keefe remarked:

Mollie, perhaps the newspapers share the same view of alleged demonic or diabolic activity as evinced in this sermon by the Presiding Bishop of The Anglican Church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, whereby when in Acts 16, St. Paul cast out a demon from the possessed slave girl, it was because “But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. …This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.”

Naturally, if demonic possession is a beautiful, holy gift of awareness, it’s very bad manners at the least to exorcise the demon.

What in the world is she talking about? Well, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church gave a sermon in Venezuela recently that you can read in its entirety here. It’s actually fascinating that it resulted in no mainstream media coverage during the same week that every media outlet in the world found it dramatically newsworthy that a head of a Christian church body actually talks like Jesus when it comes to Satan. I still don’t quite get how that’s news, but that Jefferts Schori’s sermon wasn’t news is particularly captivating.

It did get tons of media attention outside the mainstream press. You might recognize the byline on this piece from Anglican Ink that begins:

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has denounced the Apostle Paul as mean-spirited and bigoted for having released a slave girl from demonic bondage as reported in Acts 16:16-34 .

In her sermon delivered at All Saints Church in Curaçao in the diocese of Venezuela, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori condemned those who did not share her views as enemies of the Holy Spirit.

You could read about it in Catholic outlets as well. And here, here and here. Or this, from a bishop in her church:

To call Bishop Jefferts Schori’s exegesis of Acts 16 “strained” or “eccentric” is too mild. It is utterly bizarre. But others have done an adequate job fisking the sermon. I’m going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. The Christian tradition (a term I use in what I think is an Eastern Orthodox sense, inclusive of scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology) is certainly an appropriate object of critical inquiry by detached outsiders, whether sympathetic or hostile. But such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider’s point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops. It is, rather, the job of bishops, speaking as consummate insiders, to equip the baptized faithful to listen to the voices from the margins and discern between true prophets and false ones.

But why is it newsworthy that Pope Francis talks about Satan and exorcism in the manner that Christians have traditionally done so and not newsworthy what the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is doing here? Normally we expect quite a bit of media coverage of The Episcopal Church, as this blog has seen over the years. Why is this exegetical innovation not newsworthy?

A Hall & Oates bonus from Tim Graham:

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12 responses to “Media’s curiously wrong-headed posession obsession”

  1. That would be “newsworthy” and not “newsworthiness”; my unconscious must be thinking about Colbert’s concept of “truthiness”.

  2. When I first saw accounts of Bishop Jefferts Schori’s sermon I thought it was a spoof. She starts off with her usual themes of all of creation is connected, “everything is beautiful in its own way”, we should all be carin’n’sharin and then out of nowhere in the middle she starts with St. Paul and the possessed girl. Okay, she mentions it was a lectionary reading during the week, but there’s no connection attempted or made to what goes before in her sermon and the trail she strikes out on.
    Even if you hold to the idea that what was called demonic possession is always in reality mental illness, the girl was (a) a slave (b) being exploited by her masters for their profit. What is a gift about that? How is that beautiful and holy?

    • But if you hold to the idea that what was called demonic possession was a sacred trance of a different sort that did not (apparently) come from Christ, then Paul may reasonably be suspected of reacting to competition. That she was a slave and being exploited was life in the First Century, and possibly not taxing to someone given to sacred trance. That she was deprived of her power rather than welcomed into the company as another source of sacredness, foreshadows a lot. Jefferts Schori went easy on Paul.

      • Yes, that was really rude of Paul not to recognize what all good moderns know, which is that there is no dark spiritual realm that opposes God, that all religions are essentially have the same source and goal, and that it is just plain mean to deprive a slave of her living. Rude, rude, rude. Let’s hope Jefforts-Schori really takes the old sourpuss apart next time she shows off her exegetical expertise.

        • A snark at the wrong correspondent. I’m a neoPagan and definitely don’t believe all religions essentially have the same source. My notion of where the dark spiritual realm lies is probably different from yours.

          • Sorry for the mistake. My suspicion is that Schori is a lot closer to your conception of the divine than the Christian one, I’m afraid.

          • Maybe she takes it as a slur on the religions of the “African Disapora”, where “possession” is a normal and expected occurrence.

    • Maybe we should be more disturbed than we are that the head of the Episcopal Church sees it as a good thing that a slave can be exploited.

  3. “Why is this exegetical innovation not newsworthy?”
    If I’m being snarky (heaven forfend!) I might think it was a case of “Representative of The Episcopal Church comes out with statement opposed to universal opinion of church over the past 2,000 years. Nothing new there.”

  4. Presiding Bishop Schori did get some ink in 2009 when she referred to individual salvation as heresy, but it was not enough to come to the attentions of my friends in The Episcopal Church. When elected in 2006 her sermon included a comparison of the the crucifixion to childbirth, but I don’t think that drew any mainstream attention.

  5. Well, the Episcopal Church is a small Church in the midst of collapse with membership either about to die or about to leave for some other religion, so it is not really worth paying any attention to what the head of such an insignificant body says.
    That would actually make sense if it worked, however considering the amount of coverage the head of a much, much smaller group in Florida can get, I am a bit surprised.
    Still, leaders of the Episcopal Church attacking the actions of leaders of the early Christian Church is nothing new. These days it would be shocking if an Episcopal Leader praised the actions of the original aposltes.

    Myabe the media has finally got the message that the Episcopal Church is no longer the established Church in the United States, and we do not have to give one iota what bizarre things its leaders say.

    Although I more suspect that if there is bias, it is a fear of exposing how out there the ideas of some Episcopal leaders are. The debates about homosexuality are symptoms, not root causes. The root cause is an unwillingness to believe that there is evil, which the head of the Episcopal Church seems to be afflicted with.