It Would Be Hard to Even Imagine a Worse Piece of Exegesis

A couple of weeks ago, while sitting in a church vestibule, I happened to see a copy of a magazine that I had heard a lot about but had actually never read.  I had been told, and had assumed, for a number of years, that it was a Christian magazine.  I may have assumed too much.

On a two-page section of this magazine, one contributor, Min-Ah Cho, who has a Ph.D. in theology and also teaches theology at an American University, guided the magazine’s readers through a set of reflections based on five passages of the Revised Common Lectionary for the month of August. All of the reflections this contributor gave were pretty bad, but the one for August 24 was particularly egregious.  Cho’s reflections were dealing with the text in Matthew 16:13-20.  Here is the text of this passage:

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.  18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Now here are Cho’s reflections on this passage:

New Testament scholar Elaine M. Wainwright points out a dangerous dialogue pattern in Matthew 16, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am” (verse 15).  When we read the text in a broader context, it could be argued that Peter’s answer—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”—is simply acknowledging a characterization of Jesus popular in the Matthean communities.  Yet Peter’s confession on behalf of all the disciples, in effect, silences them.  Further, in a community with strong female leadership, Peter’s confession genderizes power as male normative—all the male and female participants of God’s kingdom are represented by the male disciple Peter, with subsequent consequences throughout Christianity.

If we focus on Jesus’ question, not Peter’s answer, then the dialogue renders the question about Jesus’ identity open and tense.  It allows room for “creative meaning-making.”  Instead of affirming Peter’s authority, the question invites all of us—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, and class—to ponder the relationship between Jesus and ourselves: “Who do you say I am.”

The church has a role to play in such creative meaning-making as translator, connector, and negotiator, by giving particular attention to the voices of the powerless.  Attention does not happen when we are accustomed to answers that have been considered correct and universal.  Attention does not happen without practice.  Jesus’ question requires experimental attempts to create space for seeing and thinking independent of dominant patterns.

Seriously?

Peter’s answer reinforces patterns of male domination?

Jesus asked a good question, but Peter gave a domineering male answer?

We need to ignore Peter’s answer, which will create the space for us to come up with our own answer, because we have too long believed that Peter had the correct answer?

Seriously?

Now, in all fairness to Cho, we need to note that she did not come up with this reflection on her own. She got it from another New Testament scholar.  The good news about this is that it makes her, in one respect, less culpable.  The bad news, however, is that this means that there is not just one, but there are actually two people in the universe who believe this trash.  And, unfortunately, this probably also means that there might even be more.

Of course, standing behind Cho’s and Wainwright’s understanding of this passage is that, if the passage has any real authenticity at all—that is, if it was an actual event in the life of Jesus—the record of this event has been seriously mangled by the Matthean Christian community responsible for assembling the traditions which now constitute what we call the Gospel of Matthew.  Apparently, Cho and Wainwright give some credence to the idea that Jesus actually asked this question; but they give no credence to the idea that Peter’s answer, if indeed it was actually Peter’s answer, has any value at all.  Rather, it was an answer, most likely created by the Matthean community, for the purpose of reinforcing patriarchal power structures.

Now, Cho, in her short reflection, doesn’t deal with Jesus’ reply to Peter.  I imagine Wainwright probably does.  I could do a bit of research to see how she handles it; but, being sixty years old, and wanting to utilize the rest of my time on this earth wisely, I think I’ll let someone else waste their time (ah, I’ve finally learned how to delegate!).  But for those of us who believe that the Bible is the word of God, that the narrative accounts in the gospels are fairly accurate, and for those of us who actually are “Red-letter Christians,” as opposed to those who makes such a big show about being “Red-letter Christians,” Jesus’ reply is most telling:  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”  According to Jesus, Peter, who isn’t actually characterized in the gospels as being the sharpest tool in the shed, didn’t come up with this answer on his own.  And no other human being whispered the answer in Peter’s ear.  Peter’s answer came to him directly from the Father.  But Cho and Wainwright would have us believe that Jesus’ approval of Peter’s answer, his declaration that it is “correct and universal,” destroys our right to do our own “creative meaning-making”  for this passage.  Jesus is not Lord.

By the way, if you would like to read this article for yourself, you can check it out online.  However, it will cost you $14.99 per month or $99.99 per year.  My advice would be to skip it.

The astute reader (maybe even the not so astute reader) may be wondering whether I am writing this article with a bit of “attitude.”  The answer is a definite “Yes.”  It absolutely angers me that this kind of drivel is foisted on faithful but unsuspecting Christians, and is in any way passed off as responsible exegesis of the text.  As I said in the introductory article, part of my concern in this blog is with those who “treat the Word of God as their own private playground, with the freedom to interpret or move things around as they see fit.”  And again, Irenaeus’s analogy describes what is happening here:

He graphically described the heretics as those who took the beautiful mosaic portrait of God that the biblical authors had constructed, a portrait that showed him to be the Great King that he is, and took the pieces apart and reassembled them in such a way that now God was portrayed as a dog or a fox.  He correctly recognized in this move the failure of these so-called interpreters to give the word of God its proper reverence, and to truly submit themselves to the authority of God’s self-revelation.

What is absolutely horrible about Cho’s and Wainwright’s interpretation here is that they have taken a passage in which Jesus Christ is the central figure, the King, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and they have mangled the text in such a way that the passage is really about them as victims as of some nefarious power struggle.  Pathetic.

There were a number of other things in the magazine that were highly questionable.  Because of this blog’s limited scope of exegesis and biblical theology, I am not going to go through them all here; but I do want to mention one more.

There is an article in the magazine with the title: “ ‘Get Them When They’re Young!’”  One caption for this article reads, “Teaching hellfire and damnation, Child Evangelism Fellowship runs ‘Good News Clubs’ in public schools.”  And on the front cover of this magazine,  the article is referred to with the line, “Bad News Club.”  Now, I worked as a “missionary” for Child Evangelism Fellowship one summer, teaching 5-day clubs, as well as the following school year, teaching Good News clubs.  No organization is exempt from criticism, and Child Evangelism Fellowship, though a Christian organization, is not immune from critique.  Indeed, I have some criticisms of my own.  Perhaps the article does have some valid criticisms.  However, there were a number of issues with this article which made me somewhat wary of its objectivity. One of them was that the author of the article actually used Brian McLaren as one of her sources for opinions about CEF.  I quote one line here from this part of the article:

Brian MacLaren, an evangelical preacher and author of A New Kind of Christian, says the Good News Club is particularly “dangerous” because of its “innocent pretense.”

This line is very telling for a number of reasons, only two of which I’ll give here. The first one is that MacLaren is actually referred to as “an evangelical preacher.”  It’s hard to know how to react to that one, but certain acronyms like LOL or ROFL come to mind.  The second thing is that MacLaren refers to CEF as “dangerous” because of its “innocent pretense.”  This is interesting to me, because I and many others have been saying the same thing about MacLaren for years.

A second problem for this article is that the readers discover, only at the very end of the article, that the author is not a Christian, but a Muslim. Of course, Muslims are entitled to opinions about Christian organizations, and they are certainly entitled to make those opinions known.  But, should this be done in a solo article in a Christian magazine?  At the very least, there should have been some kind of point-counterpoint presentation with this kind of critique of a Christian organization.

By the way, did you happen to notice the use of the word “dangerous” in both these articles?  MacLaren thinks the Good News Clubs run by Child Evangelism Fellowship are dangerous.  Cho and Wainwright believe that the dialogue between Jesus and Peter, a dialogue in which Jesus affirms Peter and says that his confession of Christ as Messiah was given to him by God the Father, is dangerous.  I actually agree with them.  This dialogue does have an element of danger about it.  But not for the reason they think.

A. W. Tozer, in his book, Man: The Dwelling Place of God, reports that when Henry David Thoreau began his famous two-year “simple living” experiment at Walden Pond, he was asked if he wanted a newspaper delivered him to every day. Thoreaus’s reply was, “No, I have already seen a newspaper.”

Similarly, in the unlikely event that I am ever asked if I would like to have a subscription to Sojourners magazine, I think that my reply will be, “No thanks, I’ve already seen a copy.”

Jerry Shepherd
September 19, 2014

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