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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Dancing with cadavers?



Deuteronomy 18.15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8.1-13
Mark 1.21-28

A church community that jettisons the scriptures of faith as the primary reference point for all that it does and says in the service of God is a church that has ceased to be church. Admittedly, in the context of Sunday liturgy, the cerebral action of breaking opening the word must be held in equal tension with the non-cerebral action of celebrating sacrament – to jettison either is to risk the integrity of faith. Donald Coggan made this wonderfully clear by referring to ‘the sacrament of the Word’: both word and sacrament, scripture and liturgy are ‘Word’, are sacred text: we dare not jettison either. So how do we deal with a text – indeed why should we bother with a text – in which Paul appears to be blithering on about some first century issue specific to an ancient Mediterranean city? Do we or should we really care whether we eat meat sacrificed to idols? It is hardly an issue we face each day, or even ever face, surely, except perhaps if we eat at a Hare Krishna restaurant.

There has been since the fourth century an approach to scripture called midrash. Midrash should never be a means to recreate scripture or faith in our own image, knocking off its hard edges to dumb it down or to make it palatable. Some well-known Christian quasi- or pseudo-scholars and quasi- or pseudo-apologists have made a name (and a mint) for themselves by specialising in this kind of charlatanism. No: scripture stands judgement over us, not vice versa (though of course we will disagree in the interpretation of individual texts, particularly when we come to those thorny questions of human sexuality. That is why we need the clumsy, frustrating collective processes of synodical government to frustrate yet guide our growth in God). Basically though, midrash has much to offer, especially when we find Paul addressing questions of Corinthian diet. It gives us an opportunity to engage in sacred play with the text, where the emphasis is equally shared between ‘play’ and ‘sacred’, not skewed too far towards either pole.

So what do we do when Paul addresses a question from first century Corinth of seemingly little application to us? Some of the Corinthian Christians had written to Paul asking, inter alia, about the practice of eating food previously sacrificed to idols in various temples. We might too easily utter a very 21st Century ‘meh’ here: so what? But as rich and poor Christians gathered these were issues of justice: the poor could barely afford meat at the best of times, and any meat at all was a privilege. In a ‘bring your own’ context they were being shamed: look at the meat I am providing. Yours sucks.

It is likely the issue put to Paul was more complex still. If the Thessalonian context is anything to go by, some of the braver Christians were prepared to die for the practice of their beliefs. In Thessalonica they were probably barred from trading unless they swore allegiance to the gods of Rome. Thessalonica was different to Corinth, but Paul was impressed by the Thessalonians’ bravery: they would die rather than eat second-hand, idol-offered food. By contrast the Corinthians – or some of them – were sneering: look, we are in Christ, we can do anything we like. Earlier he has addressed the question of a believer so convinced of his own perfection-in-Christ that he has outdone even secular Corinthian moral laxity by shacking up with his mother-in-law. Timid believers were scandalised: is this the way of the cross, to do anything we like when we like, to be even more decadent than the idol-worshippers? Can we who are ‘in Christ’ do anything we like? Paul’s response is unambiguous: ‘by no means’. The behaviour of some predators within the Christian communities suggests that some things never change, and much community wrath was rightly poured on the Church and its leadership as our dirty washing was aired.

The church of the 21st century – and this is no new thing – has found another sophisticated way to eat meat offered to idols. There is amongst some circles of scholarship and other church leadership an attitude aired that sounds something like ‘of course if some people want to believe in a literal resurrection (or virgin birth, or second coming, whatever) then that’s fine, but we know better’. Every faction of the contemporary Christian community has its slogans: ‘if you don’t speak in tongues you are not a Christian’, ‘if you are gay you can’t be a Christian’, ‘if you don’t experience “blessed assurance” of salvation you are not a Christian’, ‘if you ordain women’ you are not a Christian, ‘if you don’t wear designer labels you are not a Christian’, if you breastfeed or have a noisy child in church then you are not a Christian’ … or, paradoxically, ‘if you believe that resurrection stuff then you aren’t a Christian’. The message is often subliminal, but it is the same message: ‘if you don’t eat meat offered to idols then you are clearly not confident enough in faith to be numbered with us’.

For that was what was happening. It was insulting at two levels: the rich who could afford untainted meat were cheapening themselves and their responsibilities as Christian hosts by offering only second-hand meat to the lower-class Corinthian Christians. At the same time the faithful but poorer Christians, like the Thessalonian Christians who Paul so admired, were refusing to be compromised by eating the second-hand meat. ‘Poor simple folk – they don’t really understand’ – the same attitude expressed by some who sneer at those who have a literal understanding of the resurrection (as I do). They were shouldered to the outer, there left to sink or swim.

Do these questions apply to us? Some years ago I attended a conference of the Society of Biblical Literature. I was staggered at the contrast between scholars who demonstrated their academic prowess by effectively sneering at and over the texts of faith, and those who saw these sacred texts as wells of faith and knowledge directing believers deeper into the heart of the triune God. Roman Catholic Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson speaks of the difference between dissecting a cadaver and dancing with his beloved.* Each involves a body. The choice is ours: do we worship and behave in order to build up, or to tear down the body of Christ?

Do we dissect cadavers or do we dance with our beloved? This applies not only in preaching and study but in the whole of our faith practice: do we generate a practiced air of superiority that knows it all, has no need of explanations, and scorns those less advanced than ourselves, or do we see the face of Christ in the most tentative of faith-explorers? Do we admire our own sophistication and security, building temples to our own arrogance, or do we know that we too fall and always will fall far short of the glory of God, and need the infusion of God’s grace each step of our journey. Paul knew only too well his weakness – and left the arrogant Corinthian strong to stew in their own spiritual juices - or dancing with their dessicated cadavers of spiritual arrogance. That is why he goes on famously to say he become all things to all people: ‘To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some’.


* Tippet, Krista. On Being. "Luke Timothy Johnson and Bernadette Brooten: Deciphering the Da Vinci Code." June 1, 2006. Transcript online at
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