It seems that many more people are conscious of Bible study than before our COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Fox News report indicated record Bible purchases during the pandemic (click https://tinyurl.com/tn3nhzd for story). Doing research for a recent post, I came across the beautiful essay, below, from Trinity Church – Wall Street in New York City, about delving into scripture. Although written in 2010, it is even more applicable now than then. In over 20 years of visiting and writing about churches, I’ve rarely seen the practice, described in the essay, followed. Today, for the most part, it’s talking heads who lead a one-way discussion, called a sermon, with very little interpretative participation by lay members. Electronic 2-way conversations via remote viewing capabilities might be a takeaway from the ‘new normal’.
How Do We Read Scripture?
By Robert Owens Scott and W. Mark Richardson
(reprinted by permission)
November 02, 2010
When New Testament scholar Daniel M. Patte attended a worship service in Kasane, Botswana, he was surprised to find that the priest offered no sermon. Instead, the worshippers took turns interpreting the day’s scripture aloud. After each commentary, the others would pray for the speaker. Patte’s translator told him what others were saying in the Setswana language. When Patte’s turn came, the others were able to follow his English. But much as he enjoyed the experience, Patte was disappointed that after he spoke, nobody prayed. When he queried his translator he was told, “You did not ask!” The translator had neglected to convey the final line of each person’s commentary: “Brothers and sisters pray for me, that I might better understand the Scripture.”
Do we need one another in order to understand our sacred texts? Given its central role in the Christian faith, one would expect the Bible to be a source of unity. Too often, however, Christians loudly disagree on a variety of issues, their only commonality being that they all cite scripture to justify their conflicting positions. Some observers simply conclude that the Bible can be used to prove any point and is therefore meaningless. A growing number of others, like Patte, see the challenge differently. They believe that through an overemphasis on private interpretation, scholarly theories detached from the life of believers, and Bible study conducted only among the like-minded, we have forgotten that the Bible’s creation, reception, and ongoing interpretation are inherently communal.
“Scripture’s a community book,” says Sister Teresa Okure, professor of New Testament at the Catholic Institute of West Africa. “Individuals may have written it, but it’s a community that accepted it. And the community said, ‘This is what really expresses our faith.’ So we really do need one another to be able to understand.” Okure was one of Patte’s co-editors on the Global Bible Commentary (Abingdon Press), a volume offering thought-provoking, highly readable reflections on every book of the Bible, each from a different cultural perspective.
The term used to describe this approach is “contextual Bible study.” While it grew in part from liberation theology’s commitment to hearing the voices that have traditionally been silenced, it has also taken root in mainstream biblical discourse. “We have learned in the last two generations that everybody reads in a local context,” says Walter Brueggemann, widely considered the dean of U.S. Bible scholars. “And if I only read from my local context, it causes me to dismiss many of those other readings that faithful people are doing elsewhere.”
Brueggemann believes that we have focused too much on finding the correct readings of the texts and in the process have lost valuable dimensions of meaning. “I think most often there are multiple right readings,” he told us in an interview in his home in Cincinnati, Ohio. “But there are clearly readings that are wrong. And I think the work of the Church now is not so much to find out where the wrong readings are; the work of the Church is to find out how can I tolerate other right readings that stand alongside my preferred reading. The Church has had a long practice of assuming that there’s only one right reading, and that seems to be manifestly not true.”
One reason for this lack of a single definitive meaning can be traced to the way the scriptures came into being. “The importance of context is that scriptures were born in context,” Okure said when we spoke with her at the seminary where she teaches in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She notes that, in this sense, the Bible is unlike the Koran, which is attributed to the dictation of Allah by the angel Gabriel. “But, for us, first was the life, and not the book,” says Okure.
“What we have are testimonies of life. They are writing from faith for faith, to encourage other people.” The conviction that scripture reading must be connected to life is what drew Gerald West to dedicate his career to contextual Bible study. A white South African, West became politicized in the struggle to end apartheid and was asked to leave the church in which he had been ordained. He credits the socially engaged witness of Desmond Tutu with drawing him into the Anglican archbishop’s church.
West was a founder of the Ujamaa Center in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The center’s mission is to address issues in the local context through Bible study. “We were forged in the violence that wreaked havoc across the KwaZulu-Natal Province, in the 1980s, where forces of the apartheid state and forces of the United Democratic Front came into conflict, and there was massive violence,” West explained in an interview in Berkeley, California, while completing a sabbatical at the Pacific School of Religion. “And out of that violence, the cry went up of ‘What is God saying to us?’ The Ujamaa Center was a very small attempt to bring the Bible into that question; to say, well, we don’t know what God is saying, perhaps. There’s just so much violence, it’s almost impossible to know what is happening. Where is God in all of this destruction?”
Ujamaa’s Bible studies purposefully combine Bible scholars with “ordinary readers,” who haven’t been formally trained in biblical scholarship. “I’m not privileging; I’m not saying it’s any better, but it is different, and we need to recognize that it’s different,” West says, “For me, the challenge is, is there a usefulness in this difference? I think there is.”
West, Brueggemann, and Okure all agree that overreliance on scholarship can cause problems. “We biblical scholars and theologians have to take responsibility for the atheism of the world,” says Okure. “We were scholars talking to scholars for most of the century.” Brueggemann observes, “Church people want serious critical thought, but it’s got to be cast in a way that connects with the practice of faith.”
They also agree that scholars who are willing to speak on equal terms with ordinary readers bring valuable expertise. One way a scholar can help is by drawing attention to “the particularity of the text,” says Brueggemann, “so it’s not just a big blob.” The goal is to overcome the familiarity of scripture, which leads many to believe they already know what it says, and to allow people to experience the texts freshly.
All three recommend structuring Bible studies around questions that take participants back to the text repeatedly, in order to get beyond assumptions about what it says.
The novelist Mary Gordon found the wisdom of this approach when she was preparing to write her most recent book, the nonfiction Reading Jesus. “I think you have to look at the words and see what the words actually are before you go taking off into the wild blue yonder,” she told us. “And, of course, this is what the great scriptural scholars have given us, too, is to give us some historical context so that we would know that some interpretations are just nutty.”
Scholarly research also yields perspectives that can open up discussion. West credits Brueggemann, who was one of his teachers, with the insight that scripture includes at least two major voices or “trajectories.” One is prophetic and concerned with justice (identified with Deuteronomy). The other is consolidating and concerned with purity (identified with Leviticus). “I think scriptures divide us as long as we pick out the voice that we like and imagine that’s the whole Bible,” says Brueggemann.
“So let’s acknowledge that there are different voices,” says West, “and let’s explain why we have privileged the voice that we have privileged, and why we have silenced the voices that we have silenced.” The Ujamaa Center is often invited to conduct Bible studies for those with HIV/AIDS, many of whom have been told by their churches that the disease is God’s punishment. “Does scripture talk about God punishing people with diseases?” West asks. “Yes. To say it doesn’t is ridiculous, and if you refuse to face the fact that scripture does say that, you will never understand why it is that churches are saying these things. What you need to bring alongside that voice is the other voice, or other voices from scripture, which say that’s not the whole story. The Book of Job, for example, is a contestation of that view. It’s saying it’s not true that God punishes for sin; there’s another way of understanding this. So we are turning to the Book of Job in the context of HIV and AIDS, trying to return large sections of the Book of Job, which never get read in the church, to the church.”
West and Brueggemann believe that this insight is crucial to making progress in the Anglican Communion’s debates about sexuality. “One advocacy is for the purity of the church, and the other one is for the practice of justice in the church,” Brueggemann observes. West agrees: “I can perhaps begin to respect you, if I begin to understand that your voice is a legitimate scriptural voice, and you recognize that my voice is a legitimate scriptural voice. Because then we’re not shouting at each other and saying, ‘But scripture says! But scripture says!’ We’re understanding the framework within which you operate and the framework within which I operate.”
Okure finds that the scholar’s knowledge can also raise important issues about the Bible’s own context. “Let’s talk about the women issue,” she told us, “because for us, in Africa, it is very, very important.” As a scholar, she is able to illuminate the cultural background behind biblical admonitions for women to be silent, which reflect the negative view of women in the time of Augustus. “The unredeemed culture is there within the scriptures,” she says, pointing out that this view was expressed in Vatican II.
She believes that in such instances we have an obligation to debate the text. “Because those texts, they were dealing with life. And it is only after a certain time that somebody says, ‘Oh, this is canon.’ But in canonizing the text, you canonize the struggles that they had, which were rooted in life, and weren’t necessarily the word of God.” This freedom to debate the text does not mean we can simply throw out what we don’t like, however. “How you deal with it in the text is, can you hear Jesus saying it?” she explains. “Can you see Jesus implementing it? Because ultimately, Ignatius of Antioch says, he is the yardstick; he’s the canon by which you interpret the scriptures.”
The importance of the ordinary reader cannot be overestimated, either. Gordon says that what prompted her to read the Gospels as an adult, after having been discouraged from during her Roman Catholic childhood prior to Vatican II, was her realization that the fundamentalists with whom she disagreed actually knew the scriptures better than she did. She also recognized that fundamentalists spoke about scripture emotionally, feeding a hunger among believers. The problem, for her, is that “the emotions they’re approaching are anger and fear. I thought it was important to talk about other emotions, like consolation, compassion, the sense of accompaniment, the sense of joy,” she told us in an interview at her home in Rhode Island. “The work of fact not as a problem for biblical scholars, but as an opportunity for others.
“I really want to insist that ordinary reading and scholarly reading are twinned operations that are not in tension with each other, but that can be mutually reinforcing,” Brueggemann says. “Because when the Church is faithful, it has a kind of an evangelical wisdom to it that does not depend on scholarship.”
He recalls leading a seminar at a seminary for Aborigines in Darwin, Australia. “I had a very difficult time making contact. But an Aboriginal woman led the Bible study, and it was about Jesus telling them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. This woman got it. She didn’t know anything about [theories of biblical authorship], but they were all fisher-people, and so they knew about which side to put their net on and so on. And in a kind of a plain, understated fashion, she understood that casting your nets on the other side of the boat meant that another whole world was possible for the people in the boat. And I keep going back to that extraordinary moment that was highly contextual to this particular group of Aboriginal fisher-people.”
In the end, this idea that scripture makes a new world possible is the hope that all three scholars hold for the impact of scripture study in the church. Brueggemann often leads Bible study with lay people and clergy. “You do have the sense that the spirit is working in our study, because people are led to new awareness,” he says. “Wendell Berry has said that the environmental crisis will be solved one acre at a time. And I believe that’s how it is with us. I don’t think most of us are going to make heroic changes, but we may be changed one narrative at a time, or one text at a time, and led to newness.”
Robert Owens Scott is director of Trinity Institute. The Very Rev. W. Mark Richardson is president and dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific and senior theological fellow of Trinity Institute.
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