Sunday, February 13, 2011

Margaret Aymer's "About Your Invitation"

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.)
The quote:

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.


Anonymous said...

Viloa--Your last para.summed up my feelings completely. A lot of apologies are called for. It appears that only "one side" can have an opinion.

Frank Norment

Senator Wannabe said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Viola. Rarely have I seen such a concerted, relentless effort to utterly miss the point.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Doug Hagler said...

"I am not at all sure that is possible but at least they were trying and trying in kindness."

Of the many things I obviously disagree with here, this is the only one I'll really mention, and only briefly. The letter is not written in kindness - it is a call to schism, and it is profoundly condescending.

The test of kindness is whether the outsider feels it, in my opinion. Of course it might seem kind to those who agree with the schismatic fellowship in their contempt for the denomination (well, the parts they don't like). I assure you, though, my response here was not "Ah, how kind of them."

I also think that the most important parts of the response are what you do not deal with substantively - the section on 'how we got here'. It is her contention that 'we got here' by doing exactly what we should be doing, in direct contrast to the contention of the schismatic fellowship. That's the important point, in my view anyway.

Jeff said...

I thought Aymer's article actually proved the point of the Fellowship letter. Her response shows how completely divided we are as a denomination. Her analysis of "How we got here" completely missed the point.

We got here because the PC(USA) has consistently refused to stand against heresy and false doctrine for almost a hundred years. We have churches that have remained faithful to the scriptures over that time and churches that have embraced liberal theology since that time. Whole generations have come and gone in their particular congregations thinking they reflected the "Church". Now we find ourselves with diametrically opposed definitions of what "reformed" and "presbyterian" even mean.

I will never embrace liberal theology. It is neither right nor safe. Based on the glowing response to Aymer's piece by the left, I don't how long the PC(USA) will be safe for people like me either.
Jeff Ogden

Viola Larson said...

Thanks Frank. I think apologies are called for too.

David, I personally think it is much more than "effort to utterly miss the point." between Aymer's posting and the responses I have seen on the Outlook I think it is pure hatred. I can think of a lot of verses to apply here but I won't.
As an aside-Senator Wannabe??

Viola Larson said...

Of course we disagree about everything usually. But no where in the letter did I find any insulting words towards others.

And yet in Aymer's posting she writes things like:

"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).”

Doug that is an insult, and I think you know it.
Why insult for those who have not given insults?

We should be faithful to Jesus Christ and the authority of his word.

Viola Larson said...

Jeff it does prove the point, and so do all of the other insults coming the Fellowships way. I don't necessarily agree with everything in the letter. I don't at this point agree with a 17th synod, but I don't see anything wrong with these pastors stating their opinion and inviting others to join them. What’s wrong with that? Why so much anger?
I do agree with the pastor’s theology and stance on moral issues. People like Aymer who are pushing so hard for changing our ordination standards and she even doing so at the Presbyterian Women’s Gatherings are tearing our denomination apart. I think they are so angry because they thought they could keep pushing against biblical theology and morals and everyone would say that’s okay. They never expected anyone to stand against to the point these pastors have.

reformedpastor said...

Viola: That was an alternative ID I had on Blogger a long time ago. Why it turned up now I haven't a clue. By the way, thanks for the reference to Presbyterian Outlook. I'll have to take a look.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...

David go here first

And then there are others after that.

reformedpastor said...

Viola: Hadn't looked in on the comments on that thread for a couple of days. One of the things that's striking to me is how much vitriol is being slung, not just at the Fellowship pastors for committing the unpardonable sin of not being gender inclusive, but at lots of other Christians as well. One writer refers to the PCA and ARP as "Baptiterians"; George Hunsinger refers to the Eastern Orthodox as "ossified"; yet another lumps together the OCA, PCA, EPC and Bible Presbyterians (nothing like painting with a broad brush, eh?) as "fractured and fractious bodies, driven by a certain 'Presbyterian madness.'" And of course the message in so many of these responses that comes through loud and clear to evangelicals in the PCUSA is that, unless you ascribe to the liberal idea that everything should be tolerated, then you should sit down and shut up, if not get out altogether. The love just oozes, I tell ya.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...

Yes, I was suprised by George Hunsinger, I thought that he cared more about theology than that. And all the others are just rants.

Robert said...

If premodernist only meant rejecting the scientism of Modernism and the utter confusion of post Modernism I would gladly take the title. It is the baggage that comes with her definition of the word that I can't accept. I'm not for slavery and I strongly support the ordination of women. I refuse to divide off into another denomination.

But if premodern means one who holds to the glory and mystery of the Gospel (while yes using the appropriate tools developed during Modernism and selective tools developed since) I guess I'm a premodernist - although not a fundamentalist. They, contrary to her screed, are Modernist.

Bob Campbell
Sharon Hill, PA

Viola Larson said...

Well they certainly are not fundamentalist. And how their ecconomic or political views ever got mixed into her mix I am not certain. She cannot possibly know what each of them think about such issues.

Pastor Bob said...

Well maybe I should say I have a modernist perspective. Those of us born before 1970 really can't help it. But theologically I'm premodern.

tera said...

People and pastors should be allowed to embrace the theology they personally adhere to. In order to do so, there needs to be less restriction on what it is.

Some denominations have taken it on themselves to limit their statements of faith to allow, in my opinion, a more authentic approach to seeking truth within the community of Christ.

It starts with the understanding that Christ also did not reveal all his theology nor did he teach others his theology within a strict capacity of black and white statements; rather he ministered to people and built community around them through narrative dialogue and faithful acts of love and commitment to fighting hypocrisy, fear and religious dogma clothed in self-righteousness.

It takes courage and humility to follow Christ through all changes in the church and to admit that theology does not a Christian make.

Viola Larson said...

Tera I know who you are, but others do not. Please place your full name, city and state after your comment.

tera said...

Sorry Viola, I hadn't noticed others were doing that.

I'm Tera Billes from Sacramento, CA