I am writing about the manner in which Margaret Aymer answered the Pastor’s white paper and original letter , so recently on the minds and in the complaints of many in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Among other things I write poetry and I have a few rejection letters I have treasured over the years. I treasure them because the poetry editors were good enough to complement some of my writing, asked me to send more poems at other times on subjects relevant to the subject they would be focusing on and gave me some excellent criticism.
None of them treated my poetry as though it was a novel, a sermon or a book review. They knew they were reading a poem and they critiqued it like a poem. For instance they did not look for a plot or a consistent ending, but thought about its structure and its concreteness.
Margaret Aymer is undoubtedly a good exegete and it is true that any kind of text might be looked at from an exegetical perspective; however one must also take into consideration the nature of the analysis. Doing a religious exegesis of texts, which are not sermons nor sacred texts or even theological treatises, brings the risk of appearing a bit arrogant.
Aymer focuses on the word congregations because it came up prominently in her Wordle word cloud and then goes on from there to count religious words such as Christ and God. She then states that, “Other often repeated words are PC(USA), new, and Fellowship, and, (less frequently), Reformed.” The interesting part here is Aymer could have taken the word “fellowship” and expanded on it. But perhaps that would have allowed the pastors to seem more human, perhaps even kind.
She could have written about the word PCUSA, and considered their concerns for their beloved denomination and their own particular churches. At least one of these pastors has four generations of Presbyterian pastors in his family including two sons. A building at the San Francisco Theological Seminary is named for his grandmother.
This was clearly a letter and an invitation by some pastors who wish to do something new in order to either stay and renew or leave and be faithful in some other way. Why the exegetical put down?
Next Aymer brings to her exegesis a sociological examination. She does this using shame and honor as a methodology for investigating the attitudes of the pastors. In some sense this is also psychological. The problem is Aymer uses her own definitions. I don’t think anyone can take words like honor and shame and place their own meanings over the lives of other people, especially when they didn’t use the words themselves. That is in fact authoritarian.
And once again this is a methodology meant to make the pastors seem unkind, unfriendly, unbiblical and even out of date.
The real problem is that neither the ancient world’s views of honor and shame, nor the modern or post-modern’s view of the same have anything to do with where the faithful Christian, church or denomination is meant to focus. Christ Jesus is Lord of the church and when pastors are troubled over the endless controversies “scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation; creeping universalism” that should be a sign to everyone that they are trying to faithfully walk with the Lord. Being out of step with a decadent society is not unusual for the faithful Christian or church.
Aymer also uses “sacred texture” to look at how the pastors say what they believe. Her conclusions are amazing given what she has written in the earlier part of her essay. Under shame and honor she writes,” The letter, on its face, seems to be a call back (or forward) to modernist values of separation upon disagreement and radical individualism, and pre-modernist/fundamentalist elevations of all aspects of religion, regardless of changing cultural norms (e.g. slaves obey your masters).” (Bold mine)
But in the sacred texture section she concludes that, “Their theology, teleology and soteriology remain unstated. Therefore, it is unclear to what kind of theological like-mindedness the church is being summoned by this invitation.”
I believe this is the biggest problem Aymer is having with this letter. She was hoping to debate theology. She was hoping for a matching of wits between some evangelicals and a progressive. And the pastors were trying to kindly, politely and righteously, simply stand their ground without being attacked. They were trying to make a safe place for their people. They were trying to emulate the Good Shepherd.
I am not at all sure that is possible but at least they were trying and trying in kindness.
Aymer goes on to write about how she thinks we got to the place we are. But she believes we are in a different place then I believe, so I will, rather than write about her conclusion, be very Presbyterian, Reformed and even Evangelical. I will quote some Calvin. (But before I do, as always, I must say, I am not leaving unless I am told I must.)
We ought to be deeply grieved that the Church is torn by divisions arising among those who profess the same religion; but it is better that there are some who separate themselves from the wicked, to be united to Christ their Head, than that all should be of one mind in despising God. Consequently, when schisms arise, we ought to inquire who they are that revolt from God and from his pure doctrine.” (John Calvin Commentary on John vol. 1)
None of these pastors have insulted anyone, but they have been horribly insulted for no reason. I think that all in our denomination ought to ask why there should be so much vileness and hatred flung their way.
Please Christ have mercy on you Church.