Vital Signs

"This Is An Hard Saying: Who Can Hear It?"

Not too often these days does a church service offer me a moment of startling revelation, a line of scripture that stops me in my tracks. This past Easter, though, I was attending an Episcopal service, when I heard a line—or, more exactly, did not hear a line—that had just that effect. The minister, a recently ordained woman, was reading the famous passage in St. John's gospel that describes the disciples gathering in great fear after the Crucifixion. She read how "the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked. Jesus came and stood among them and said 'Peace be with you'" (John 20:19). Though the words were familiar, something sounded wrong and, indeed, was wrong. What the minister had done was to omit the few words that described just why the doors were locked: "for fear of the Jews." She had edited a scriptural reading in order to remove an unpalatable phrase, a hard saying. That's right: She was censoring the New Testament.

In making this omission, she had committed two errors, one substantial in its implications, the other incalculable. On the lesser count, what we might call the venial sin, she was succumbing to a misleading and pejorative historical interpretation of Christian origins. But worse, she was responding to this problem by consciously changing the biblical text to mesh with her political preconceptions. If this were an isolated misdeed by one...

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