June 12, 2017

Reading Scripture with the Other in Mind

The world famous Joel Osteen lives in Houston. I live in Houston too but I've never seen or met him. That said, his massive church building is impossible to miss. Lakewood Church is a huge building in the city. What I am told of Osteen is that he has a certain biblical hermeneutic. A hermeneutic is a lens, a way of reading and understanding Scripture. Osteen and others like him read with a lens, or bias, that is often referred to as the "prosperity gospel." The way Osteen goes about his ministry is shaped by how he reads and uses the Bible. You can google the term "prosperity gospel," I won't go into details about it here.

Osteen isn't alone. We all do this. Whether we are Christians or not. We read historic, defining documents in hopes of drawing something in particular from it. If you pay attention to Republican and Democrat politicians, you will often notice that they have opposing hermeneutics. Not of the Bible necessarily but for the United States Constitution. They read the same document and come to differing conclusions of meaning.

My point is simply that all Christians read Scripture looking for something whether intentionally or not. This shapes how we go about using the Bible. It shapes our theology (what we think about God), our ecclesiology (what we think about the Church) and our ethics (how we live and behave). The point of this post is to try on a different "lens" for reading Scripture, a missional hermeneutic. My goal is to go about this with the idea that you could use this approach in a Bible study.

I asserted in my first post on the subject that the Bible acts as a metanarrative, an overarching worldview for the Christian. It shapes how we understand the events of the day and how we are to engage the world around us. A metanarrative is a story. All stories have actors, a stage and scenes. So, the first question we ask when reading Scripture with a missional hermeneutic is, "Who?" We assume that there are three actors: God, God's people and the 'other.' It's convenient to read Scripture first looking for what the human 'actors' are doing. We can relate to them. But the first actor we are looking for is God. Therefore, the first question we ask ourselves is:

"What is God doing?"

After we answer the question of what God is doing, we look for the human characters. There are two sets of characters, God's people and the outsider. Broadly, God's people in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are the Israelites and in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) are the Church. The outsider is whomever is outside of these communities. We ask ourselves two questions in regards to these two characters:

"How do God's people respond to God's activity?" and "How is the outsider invited to participate?"

As I've said before, our Scriptures are a compilation or texts written by many authors in many contexts over a great stretch of time. Because of this, answering these questions are sometimes difficult. In such a case, other questions might be helpful in unpacking the metanarrative, God's story, within a particular passage. For starters:

"What is the context?"

This is our 'stage.' This is place our three 'actors' are performing. And it shapes how we read the Bible. For example, when I first met my wife we were in high school. At the time, her favorite verse was Jeremiah 29:11, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Read in late twentieth century southern California in a white middle class home this passage might mean one thing. But the book of Jeremiah was written in a particular context. God's people were in exile, taken away from their own land–the land God had promised them. What does it mean when God tells the Hebrew people to do something in a foreign place, a place that was not part of the original promise? Even more challenging is when this verse is read with the remainder of the chapter. Understanding the stage our actors are on is important.

Three other factors are important to a missional lens for reading the Bible. As I said before, there are three 'scenes' in our reading.  Scene one is of conflict and victory. Scene two is announcement of this victory. Scene three is response to the announcement. In other words, there is good news to be shared. Someone has to announce this news. Someone else has to be able hear and respond.

So, let's try this out. This Sunday was what we call Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. Let's look at one the readings from the lectionary for this Sunday. One from the Old Testament, Genesis 1-2:4a.

What is God doing?
God's action in this passage is pretty obvious; God creates the world. But we don't yet see any of our other actors. So let's move on to another question.

What is the context? An obvious answer might be the world as it is being created. But what is the context in which the story of creation is being told? To keep this brief, let's just say we agree that this is an ancient story told in an ancient world (here's a good article by Pete Enns on the subject). There were a number of ancient creation stories told by different cultures. The Babylonian's creation narrative, the "Enuma Elish," depicted one victorious god creating the world through his violent defeat of another god. But Genesis is not a Babylonian account for creation. Who was telling this story? This brings us back to our other actors.

How do God's people respond to God's activity? God's people respond to God's creative work by telling their story of creation. Notice how the Genesis creation narrative differs from the Babylonian tale. Rather the world coming out of violence and dominance, the Hebrews tell a story of God's desire to create beauty and intended relationship within humanity. Creation is not the result of destruction but goodness. God's people respond to God's creative work by telling the story we read.

How is the outsider invited to participate? In telling this story in the ancient world, the Hebrews were contrasting their worldview with many of those that would have lived around them. It's important to remember that in the ancient world any number of those things listed in the Genesis creation narrative would have been worshiped as gods. The Hebrews' creation makes something quite clear by stating that, You may worship the moon or sun, elephants or trees but there is God who created all these things and this is the God we follow and worship (my synopsis). In an ancient world, this acted as an invitation to follow the Hebrew God; to set aside the worship of what has been created and worship the Creator. Additionally, it was an invitation to view their own humanity differently. What does it say to someone if they are told they were created out of violence and death and then to be told this isn't true, they were created by a God who desires relationship and beauty? This all sounds like good news, does it not? It does require a change of devotion but it is nonetheless good news to those who have been told they exist only as slaves to the gods.

What do we do with such a reading of the creation narrative? What does it provide us in the twenty-first century?

For starters, this reading establishes that the Genesis creation account is a theological, not scientific, statement. It was not written to debate a literal seven days of creation versus evidence of evolution. But this reading does challenge the reasoning of our existence. We are are more than an accident, we exist to be in creative partnership with Source of creation. Is this the story we tell our neighbors? And if so, how they are invited to participate? The worldview of creation vs. evolution is often no more than a debate, an extension of the infamous Scopes trial. Remember that the Genesis narrative was not a debate with proponents of the Enuma Elish. The Genesis narrative was not debating reality with Babylonians but announcing the good news of what had already been enacted by God. The conflict is not ours but God's and God has already acted. I don't think it matters so much whether or not you believe in a literal seven days of creation or not. I don't. But there's not much good news in the seven days statement. It does not matter when it comes to considering the outsider. Reading the Bible through a missional lens assumes that God is out ahead of us, reconciling with the world. A reading of Scripture with this in mind ensures that we take into account those who have not heard the good news in God's story. It is not an isolationist reading, which reads only to create distinction or difference. It is contrasting with an intention towards invitation. There is good news in the purpose of the creation narrative and it calls us to interact with the world around us in a different and purposeful way and invites others to do the same.

Until next time, some reading:

Reading the Bible with the Damned by Bob Ekblad