Identity and Interpretation
Insights The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary
Park • Muck • Thompson • Mikkelsen • Lee • Jean Thompson • Beadle • Lincoln • Jensen • Hooker
The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary Fall 2013
Editor: Cynthia L. Rigby Editorial Board: Jennifer L. Lord, David White, and Randal Whittington The Faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary John E. Alsup Whitney S. Bodman Allan Hugh Cole Jr. Gregory L. Cuéllar Lewis R. Donelson William Greenway David H. Jensen David W. Johnson Paul K. Hooker
Timothy D. Lincoln Jennifer L. Lord Suzie Park Cynthia L. Rigby Kristin Emery Saldine Monya A. Stubbs Asante U. Todd Theodore J. Wardlaw David Franklin White
Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary
is published two times each year by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: austinseminary.edu Entered as non-profit class bulk mail at Austin, Texas, under Permit No. 2473. POSTMASTER: Address service requested. Send to Insights, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797. Printing runs are limited. When available, additional copies may be obtained for $3 per copy. Permission to copy articles from Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary for educational purposes may be given by the editor upon receipt of a written request. Some previous issues of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, are available on microfilm through University Microfilms International, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 (16 mm microfilm, 105 mm microfiche, and article copies are available). Insights is indexed in Religion Index One: Periodicals, Index to Book Reviews in Religion, Religion Indexes: RIO/RIT/IBRR 1975- on CD-ROM, and the ATLA Religion Database on CD-ROM, published by the American Theological Library Association, 300 S. Wacker Dr., Suite 2100, Chicago, IL 60606-6701; telephone: 312-454-5100; e-mail: atla@atla. com; web site: www.atla.com; ISSN 1056-0548.
COVER: “Angels Don’t Come Cheap in this Life,” by David Whittaker; ©2010; 60 x 60 cm, mixed media on panel; private collection. Used with permission of the artist, Courtesy of Millennium (www.millenniumgallery.co.uk)
Theodore J. Wardlaw
Identity and Interpretation 4
Story, Interpretation, and Identity
by Suzie Park
Unlocking the Text, Unlocking the Reader
An Interview with Suzie Park
Layering Identities by Terry Muck
Confessing the Faith in the Toughest of Times by Deanna Thompson
Identity Before Story and History by Hans Vium Mikkelsen
James Lee, Dan Jean, Kendra Thompson, Tracey Beadle
27 Required Reading
My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, written by Christian Wiman, reviewed by Timothy Lincoln; God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction, written by Adrian Thatcher, reviewed by David Jensen
29 Christianity and Culture Eloquent Witness by Paul K. Hooker
here is a small, but once-large, Presbyterian church in Nashville that was founded in the wake of the commencement of the Second World War. Its pastor, previously at the prominent Presbyterian congregation downtown, had been a thoroughgoing pacifist for at least a decade. In the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor—a time when thoroughgoing pacifists, or pacifists of any kind, were hard to find in this country—this pastor had preached a passionate sermon against war and, predictably, had ignited the wrath of many of his parishioners. Over the issue of the freedom of the pulpit, the pastor and some nine hundred of his supporters left that church and founded this new one: a pacifist Presbyterian church, in a Southern city, on the eve of our involvement in World War 2. I heard this unusual story years ago, and later, when I was in Nashville for a short visit, I had to go see this church. An architecture enthusiast, I was curious as to what it would look like. How would its roots in radical pacifism affect its appearance? It looked like lots of Presbyterian churches formed in that era—in a lovely neighborhood, shaded by the canopy of large trees, all stately and rectilinear with its abstract glass and stone exterior. The thing about it that startled me the most was what was carved in stone above the main entrance to the sanctuary. If I had even thought about what pacifists might carve in stone over the doorway to their sacred space, I might have imagined a fiery scriptural critique of establishment religion—something like “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…” or “I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” or Pilate’s tired question, “What is truth?” What I saw instead over that entrance surprised me. It was Luke’s account of a plea by one of Jesus’ disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray…” Those lonely rabble-rousers had searched the scriptures and had wisely carved in stone over their church’s doorway a reminder of the heart of Christian piety: the quiet, steady, relentless discipline of prayer. That’s a parable of “identity and interpretation,” the theme of this issue of Insights. Its moral, as our own Professor Suzie Park suggests in her wonderful opening piece, is that where people and communities are situated shapes how we read the Bible. Where we are situated summons specific biblical texts, and very specific interpretations of them. Former Austin Seminary faculty member Terry Muck adds a movingly personal contribution to the power of the Bible’s authority in our lives as we read it deeply. Deanna Thompson, of Hamline University, is equally personal as she explores the challenge of reading scripture in hard times. Danish theologian Hans Vium Mikkelsen underscores that the Bible is powerfully contextual from its very beginning. Thoughtful pastors—all of them Austin Seminary alums—share their own views of scripture; two faculty members recommend must-reads; and Paul Hooker closes us out with an homage to the prophetic witness of baseball Hallof-Famer Pee Wee Reese. Read this issue from cover to cover. It will shape your own identity. Theodore J. Wardlaw President, Austin Seminary
Story, Interpretation, and Identity Suzie Park An Introductory Story
hen I was at divinity school, a friend of mine was assigned an exegetical paper on a story in the Old Testament. The topic of the paper was openended, as are most papers in graduate school, and the task at first seemed simple: she had to pick a story in the Old Testament and write a new, interesting interpretation of it. When she tried to begin her paper, however, she ran into a problem: she realized that she did not really know how to interpret or what interpretation meant. Ever practical, she went to the professor who had assigned her the paper, a prominent biblical scholar and the author of several famous books, to ask whether he could recommend a how-to-guide to interpretation of biblical texts. My friend hoped and, I suspected, believed that a step-by-step instruction manual, an Exegesis for Dummies, existed, and indeed, might have even been utilized by the famous biblicist himself in writing his own works. When she met with him, however, her question was greeted with curious and befuddled looks. The professor told her that there was no such guidebook, as he knew it. Certainly, there were books on exegesisâ€”for example, on the history of
Suzie Park is assistant professor of Old Testament at Austin Seminary. Park earned her PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. She received the MDiv and MA from Harvard Divinity School and the BA in Religious Studies and Middle East History from Amherst College. Prior to coming to Austin Seminary she taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. 3
Identity and Interpretation the interpretation or different schools of interpretation—but nothing that told you how to do it exactly. My friend pressed further. Well then, she continued, if there was no book on how to interpret, would the professor mind telling her what he did when he exegeted a biblical narrative? She would simply follow his movements and the problem would be solved. This, too, was met with a look of befuddlement, confusion, and amusement. He could not explain what “steps” he took, per se, that she could replicate to get an interpretation. He could not or would not share his secret.
Questions and Secrets in Interpretation
he professor’s response is not surprising considering the complexity of the questions my friend had inadvertently asked: What is interpretation? What are we doing when we read a story and interpret it, especially stories in the Bible? What does it entail, and how to do we get an interpretation? Though I ask students in my class every year to write exegetical papers, I admit that what constitutes an interpretation is not easily explained. What exactly am I asking the students to do when I tell them to interpret the text? What do I mean and, more importantly, what do my students think I mean? The question of interpretation is not new—and certainly we cannot do justice to it in this short article. A few words on the subject might be helpful, however. Classical Jewish interpreters in the cabalistic tradition broke down interpretation of biblical texts into four approaches, remembered by the acronym pardes. At the top was peshat or the plain or simple reading; next was remez or the symbolic or allegoric meaning; this was followed by derash or comparative reading and, lastly, there was sod, the secret, mystical meaning.1 This schema was similar to the fourfold Christian mode of interpretation: historical or literal, tropological or moral, allegorical or typological, and anagogical, which dealt with future events or prophecies. Hence, according to these exegetes, interpretation was not just one thing. Rather, there were different kinds of interpretations, multiple ways of reading and finding meaning. To think about interpretation more simply, according to the first reference to scriptural interpretation in the Bible—Ezra 7:10—interpretation entails an examination or probing of the text. Ezra 7:10 states that Ezra, the scribe and community leader who returned to Israel to rebuild the Second Temple during the Persian Period, “prepared his heart to seek [infinitive construct of derash] the law of the Lord.” This verb “derash” (from which we get the word “midrash”), means to dig, seek, or investigate. Thus following the passage in Ezra, the main function of interpretation in Jewish biblical exegesis was simply to investigate (derash) the text. Frank Kermode, a famous literary theorist, expands on this idea. This digging or derash-ing is necessary, he writes, because the genesis of interpretation is a secret. Interpretation begins with a question, a foible, an uneasiness that something is not quite right in the text. What the interpreter seeks is an answer or a way to correct this wrong somehow, “to show what is concealed in what is proclaimed”—to unearth and reveal the secret hidden by and in the text.2 My friend thus was correct 4
Park that there was a secret involved in exegesis, though a different kind of secret than she imagined. It is the secrets in and of the text that provoke and call forth the interpretive exercise. How the interpreter gets the text to reveal its secrets is thorny, however. Kermode writes that the text is duplicitous, conniving, and misleading. It does not reveal its secrets easily or even satisfactorily. It plays hard to get, and, as in many troublesome relationships, the interpreter can be left heartbroken—but also oddly tantalized enough to return and try again: “World and book … are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only by our hermetic tricks. Hot for secrets … our sole hope and pleasure is in the perception of a momentary radiance, before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us.”3 This disappointment, this difficulty of interpretation, is heightened if the text is at some distance removed from the interpreter, as is the case with the ancient biblical text. Indeed, the more removed a text is, and thus, the more opaque the original sense and meaning, the greater the necessity for “hermetic tricks,” for the interpreter to fill in the gaps in the text to make it sensible to the reader. Hence, the distance between an ancient text and reader heightens the importance of the interpreter, the conjurer of the text’s secret, in the formation of the interpretation itself. Or to put it differently, the identity and story of the interpreter is a necessary component of interpretation, especially of an ancient text such as the Bible. The relationship between the interpreter and the interpretation thus is key to an understanding of how exegesis works. However, the nature of this relationship is complex and unclear. How and in what ways do the interpreters, their identities and stories, shape the interpretation of a biblical story? Or to personalize it, how do our own stories influence our interpretation, our attempt to unearth this secret of the story? How and in what ways do our own personal stories leak into and fill in the gaps in the biblical story? And how does the interpretation in turn reveal the secrets, the stories of the interpreters themselves? To further probe these questions let us turn to—naturally—two stories.
Another Story about False Prophecies and Interpretations
he first story begins in ancient Israel with two kings and an upcoming battle. No king in the ancient world rushed into a battle without getting a favorable and auspicious divine word. The scene in 1 Kings 22:19-22 thus begins with two kings, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and Ahab, the infamous king of Israel and husband of Jezebel, sitting before a group of prophets asking for a divine word as to whether they should go to war with a neighboring country Aram. Though prophets did at times “predict” the outcome of events in the near future such as battles, they were not so much foretellers as intermediaries between God and the people. Indeed, the word “prophet” or nabi in Hebrew (probably related to the word “to call” in Akkadian), comes from the Greek word prophetes meaning “one who proclaims a message on behalf of another” or “messenger.” In other 5
Identity and Interpretation c words, prophets translated the things in the divine sphere to the people on earth. They were interpreters between God and the people of the past, present, and immediate future.4 Hence, the assemblage of prophets in 1 Kings 22 before battle was part and parcel of going to war. You had to find out from God’s intermediaries and interpreters that the gods were on your side and that war would go favorably on your behalf. However, these prophets assembled before the kings were not just any prophets off the street. They were employed by the court and on the royal payroll, and this meant that their meal ticket was dependent on their prophecies. Thus, unsurprisingly, the story continues, when these prophets begin to prophesy, they all reach a unanimous answer: all the king’s prophets were of one accord that the kings should go to war as God was on Israel and Judah’s side. The message, however, must have seemed too good to be true to the king of Israel. Dubious as to whether he was getting the full answer from these yes-men, the king summons a renegade prophet named Micaiah ben-Imlah. Micaiah appears on the scene shortly thereafter and nobly proclaims that he will speak the truth and nothing but the truth: “As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak” (1 Kings 22:14). However, when the king asks Micaiah to prophesy and tell them whether they should go to war, this prophet who grandly stated that he will speak only what the Lord tells him, mimes the other prophets: “He answered him, ‘Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king’” (1 Kings 22:15). Micaiah lies. The king, annoyed and used to dealing with Micaiah, however, chides him and presses him to tell him “nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord,” to tell him what he really saw. And at this point Micaiah finally admits that he saw disaster for Israel. Micaiah then goes on to explain how it was that he saw disaster while the others prophesied success. Micaiah states that when he was prophesying, he went up to heaven and heard God ask for a lying spirit to entice or deceive the prophets of the kings of Israel and Judah. Hence, Micaiah explains, the prophesies of the other prophets who foretold victory were the result of a lying spirit sent by the Lord to fool them. At this point, the story descends into a bar fight among the prophets complete with slaps and threats of death and eventually, jail. (I encourage the reader to read the full story!) This story is full of deception, untruths, and lies. The prophets of the king lie and deceive. Micaiah, the prophet of God, initially lies and deceives. Even God lies (sort of) and certainly deceives. The story itself is also deceptive as it is unclear what is a lie and what is not: though Micaiah’s prophecy ends up being correct— Israel and Judah do lose the battle—this does not actually prove that he told the truth as to what he saw, just that he guessed correctly while the other prophets did not; remember that Micaiah cannot be fully trusted either. Likewise, if the other prophets’ false prophecy was the result of a lying spirit, then they did not lie per se; they told the truth, but were deceived. Who is and who is not a liar remains obscure in the text. This story is not about any lies and liars, however, but about deceptive and 6
Park false interpretations of the word of God by the interpreters of the divine word. This story upends the distinction between true and false prophecy—or correct and incorrect interpretation—as both the true and the false prophecy is said to emanate from God.5 The narrative also upends the distinction between true and false prophets. This blurring is especially evident in the Hebrew. Micaiah, in heaven, hears the Lord ask for a lying spirit to deceive the prophets of Ahab. The word that is translated as deceive (the piel stem of p-t-h) can also mean to entice, trick, seduce, or allure. Interestingly, this verb does not occur only in relation to false prophets or false prophecy. Rather, the same verb appears in Jeremiah when the prophet, lamenting his calling, asks why the Lord has deceived him in making him a prophet: “O Lord, you deceived me [piel of p-t-h], and I was deceived [Niphal of p-t-h]” (Jeremiah 20:7). The fact that this particular verb is used in conjunction with both the “false” prophets of Ahab as well as with Jeremiah, a true prophet of the Lord—the fact that both claim that their vocation as prophets or interpreters involves a sense of being seduced or perhaps deceived by God—shows that the distinction between true and false prophecy, as well as false and true prophets, is murky and unclear, even to the prophets themselves. Both types of prophets and both types of prophecy involve divine deception and lies. Hence, as I read it, this narrative, at its heart, is about the duplicity—the deceptiveness—of interpretation. It is about the difficulty of the interpreter in finding and ascertaining a true exegesis of the divine word. This story is self-referential: a biblical story about the difficulty of interpreting a biblical story. Moreover, the story is also about the deception of the interpreters who themselves remain unclear and doubtful as to the truthfulness of their own interpretation. Hence, this story, as I read it, is about the inability to know a true interpreter or interpretation from a false one.
Yet Another Story about False Prophecies and Interpretations
ccording to my reading, this story in 1 Kings raises suspicions about the very nature of the exegetical enterprise. This interpretation, in turn, cannot help but raise questions as to what I am doing when I interpret. Indeed, according to my interpretation, even my interpretation of the story in 1 Kings is suspect. So why have I interpreted the narrative in 1 Kings in the way that I have? Is there something of my own personal bias, leaning, or story that has inadvertently come into this interpretation? To further elucidate, a second, more personal story is needed. I am an Asian-American woman biblicist of the Old Testament. This is not the usual career path of someone like me. The story of how I became a biblical scholar begins a while back in North Korea before the civil war that separated the South from the North. The family narrative goes that my grandmother in Pyongyang went to a shaman to inquire about my great-grandfather—her father—who had failed to return from a journey. His family, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, sent my grandmother to inquire with a local cult figure as to his whereabouts. When my grandmother saw the shaman, she was told to mourn her father as he was 7
Identity and Interpretation dead and would not return. As it happens, when my grandmother’s family was all but done mourning my great-grandfather, he returned. He had only been delayed, not killed. Upset at the false prophecy of this shaman, my grandmother promptly converted to Christianity. This conversion led her to join a Christian group, and then to hear the news that the Korean civil war had broken out and that it was the North that had attacked the South. This led to my grandmother fleeing North Korea for the South with her family, including her young son who would become my father. My grandmother was with my family when I was growing up in Texas and California, the states my family immigrated to when I was about seven. She was in charge of tutoring me in English. More importantly, she was the one who read and told me stories from the Bible, and the one who prayed for me. These stories that she told to me are the same ones that I read, teach, and interpret today for a living. According to this narrative, my career as an Old Testament biblicist is the indirect result of a failed prophecy, a false oracle that began with a shaman being wrong about my great-grandfather’s whereabouts. A more optimistic way to read it is that my current position as an interpreter of the Bible stems from a false prophecy sent to a false prophet by God for God’s own purposes.
Story upon Story upon Story
ccording to Toni Craven: “[B]iblical interpretation … the act of forging links between text and meaning is primarily an act of memory-making.”6 If so, how have I turned my earlier interpretation of the story in 1 Kings into “an act of memory making.” Or to phrase the question slightly differently, how has my own story, my particular memory of my origins, shaped my interpretation of the narrative in 1 Kings? As best as I can unravel it, the main influence that my back story has on my reading of the narrative in 1 Kings is it makes me particularly attuned to the situation of the various prophets. For example, because in my memory, I see myself as an interpreter who stems from a false prophecy, I am particularly sensitive to and even sympathetic to the false or deceived prophets of Ahab in 1 Kings. This empathy with the false prophets, in turn, leads me to see other parallels between myself and this group. These prophets are most likely members of a prophetic, interpretative guild, as I am. Prophecy or interpretation is their job and thus their means of livelihood, as in my case. And similar to myself, the prophets are most likely products of a prophetic school or group, receiving both their status and their authority, in part, from their association with the school or group. My background also allows me to identify with Micaiah, however. Micaiah is an outsider. He might be a prophet, but he is not part of the group that normally comes before the king. He does not seem to belong to the majority prophetic sect. He also worries that his prophecies will not be taken seriously and, hence, initially lies and puts forth the usual, more acceptable prophecy. He seems to be on his own. Though I do not feel as estranged as Micaiah, I admit that as an Asian-American woman, one of the few who specialize in Hebrew Bible, I have similar feelings of 8
Park being an interpreter on the margins, an outsider. My personal story and identity thus heightens my awareness of certain facets of this biblical story, allowing me to identify with both sets of prophets or interpreters. Moreover, this identification with prophets makes me particular sensitive to questions about the truthfulness of prophecy and, thus, interpretations. In my reading of the biblical story and in my own particular reading of my past, not much separates Micaiah from the false prophets of Ahab. Both interpreters are susceptible to deception and both are capable of rendering false interpretations. And in the end, it is unclear who is a liar and who is not; and thus it is unclear what separates the true interpreters and interpretations from the false ones. Both prophets, in some way, stem from or have a relationship with false, deceptive prophecies of God in their role as interpreters. And thus, in my reading, both prophets are similar to me. Though it is not unusual that I, as an interpreter, am more tuned in to questions about truthful interpretations and interpreters, I wonder whether I am more sensitive to this distinction because in viewing myself as a creation of a false prophet and a false prophecy, I inadvertently question whether I, myself, am a false or true prophet. The feelings of being an outsider like Micaiah merely exacerbate this question. In other words, my own personal story of how I came to be a biblicist, my current vocation, as well as my particular identity all play a role in causing me to read into the biblical story in 1 Kings questions and skepticism about the nature of interpretation and interpreters.
oy Sano writes: “Where we ‘sit,’ or are situated, shapes what as well as how we read in the Bible.”7 Our story and identity cannot help but influence our interpretation of other stories. Indeed, Christopher Hall, in a recent article in The Christian Century, states that while only six out of one-hundred North American students mentioned the famine when they were asked to read the parable of the prodigal son and retell it, a whopping forty-two out of fifty Russian readers remembered it in their retelling. According to Hall, Russians, because of their memory and experience with famines, especially during World War II, are more highly attuned to these catastrophes.8 In other words, our varying memories, experiences, and stories shape how we read, what we are particularly sensitive to, and how we fill in the narrative gaps and make connections in the text. In other words, going back to the story of my friend and the professor with which I began the article, there is no effective how-to manual to interpretation, nor can you simply mime someone else as they interpret, because interpretation is a deeply personal process.9 In interpreting, we blend, twist, and mix our own personal stories, biases, and memories with those in the text, creating a new other story. And by creating this new story, we learn to make sense of not only the ancient text, but also ourselves and the stories that form and shape us. v
Identity and Interpretation NOTES 1. See Michael Signer, “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Jewish Tradition,” in New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 1:65-82. For an fuller description of Jewish and Christian interpretative methods and assumptions see: James Kugel, The Bible as It Was (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997), 1-49. 2. Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1979), x. 3. Ibid, 145. 4. For more on prophecy see: Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 183). 5. Robert Chrisholm tries to take the blame from God by arguing that sometimes God uses deceit to facilitate the demise of sinners (“Does God Deceive,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 : 11-28). 6. Toni Craven, “Remembering the Past in the Psalms,” in The Performing Memory in Biblical Narrative and Beyond (eds. Athalya Brenner and Frank H. Polak; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 31. 7. Roy Sano, “Shifts in Reading the Bible: Hermeneutical Moves among Asian Americans,” Semeia 90/91 (2002): 105 8. Christopher Hall, “How to Remove Our Bible-Reading Blinders,” Christianity Today, Nov 29, 2012, 71. 9. Walter Brueggemann offers as close to a step-by-step guide to an interpretation of the biblical text in an article (“That the World May be Redescribed,” Interpretation 56 : 359-67).
Study Questions 1. What is meant by interpretation? What are we doing when we read the Bible and interpret it? 2. In what ways do the interpreters—their identities and stories—shape or influence (or leak into) the interpretation of a biblical story? 3. Can we put ourselves into the text too much? And how do we ascertain when is too much and when is enough? 4. What is the difference between misreading the text versus correctly interpreting the text? 5. How and in what ways do the stories reveal the secrets of the interpreters? 6. How do we distinguish between false and true prophecy, and false and true interpretation? 10
Interview Suzie Park
Unlocking the Text, Unlocking the Reader When you ask students to interpret a text, what are you asking them to do, exactly? I don’t spell out what interpretation is. I ask them to read the biblical story and I try to raise a question about it. Then I ask them to try to answer that question and that becomes their thesis. This doesn’t quite answer the question of what interpretation is though, which I think is a much larger question. That I don’t know; certainly in the article I say that interpretation is about trying to salvage out of the text some kind of secret, some kind of thing that’s unknown, something that’s mystical, even. Pastors interpret scripture week after week in preparing their sermons. Is there something you would want pastors to be doing interpretively that is different from what you ask students to do? Pastors bring a slightly different role to their interpretive work: they are trying to figure out how the text fits the context and needs of their community, as a member of that community who shares stories with that community. You talk a lot about prophets in your essay. Should interpreters of the Bible aim to be prophets? This is a tough question because a person should always be suspicious of his or her own interpretations. We have no problem being suspicious of other people’s interpretations, but we need to be suspicious of our own, because it’s always possible that we’re wrong even when we think we’re right. I think it’s difficult to discern what’s right and what’s wrong, especially when we’re talking about true or false interpretation. There’s an emotional aspect to all this, because you may be excited about discovering a secret in the text, work hard to relay it in a sermon, and then find out you’re wrong. It’s also emotionally hard when you find a “secret” in the text and then are unsuccessful in inviting people to share it with you. Yeah, I think it’s almost easier to write an academic paper, because you could make
Identity and Interpretation
If we are going to do better, we should remember that little kids are imaginative—they’re weirdly brilliant— and they want to find the answers to a puzzle. So I think we should ask them a lot of questions about the biblical stories, and I think we should not feel threatened by the answers they give us.
it just a straight “aha” moment. But when you’re interpreting in a ministerial context, you’ve got to attend to applying the interpretation to “real life.” Is it possible to probe the text too much when you’re doing the work of interpretation? I think there can be too much focus on just individual words and the grammatical aspect of it—you can miss the forest for the trees, as they say. I think you should get your own idea or question first and then do your research. This seems backwards to some people. But if you have too many ideas in your head before you think of your own it’s like having too many bakers in the kitchen. What you’re baking doesn’t come out well! You show us, in your piece, how you read the biblical text through your own story, and then how the text also shaped your understanding of your story. I think this kind of conversation—between the text and our stories—happens all the time. But we don’t always think consciously about it. So how important is it to be self-reflective about how our stories are com12
Interview ing into play, for better and for worse? I think once you know how much your story comes into your interpretation, your interpretation takes on a greater meaning. You realize you’re in the story. So often we hear that the Bible is boring, but this is because we learn all the stories in Sunday school and think we know them, when in reality there is so much more to the story to come to know. We inadvertently trump that voice that comes out of the text when we don’t enter into the stories ourselves, with our own stories. So is there a way, in Sunday school, that we can teach interpretation earlier on? Could we do a better job of inviting children to think in an integrated way about their own stories in relation to the stories of the Bible? I don’t know, so I want to say that Sunday school might have changed from when I was a kid. At that time we were taught “THE interpretation.” We were not taught to interpret. If we are going to do better than this, we should remember that little kids are imaginative—they’re weirdly brilliant—and they want to find the answers to a puzzle. So I think we should ask them a lot of questions about the biblical stories, and I think we should not feel threatened by the answers they give us. And we have to expect that these answers will certainly not be “party line.” We should be open to the theological ramblings of a child because they will lead to enjoyment of and interest in the biblical text. There are a lot of folks who might read your piece and say: “This is an amazing story! I can see where this story would shape Dr. Park and affect her interpretation of scripture. But my story’s boring.” Do you have any advice for how we can go about claiming our identities in our conversation with the scriptures? I’m assuming that most people’s stories are not boring! Each family has a particular secret waiting to be discovered. Yours might not have survived war or anything crazy like that, but I just don’t think any of us comes from a “normal” family. Fortunately, the Bible is full of stories about secrets and dysfunctional families! Do you think the Bible can help us unlock our own stories by giving us permission to not be perfect? Yes! I think the Bible is a series of truly human stories that help us unlock the secrets of our own uniquenesses. I think the question when we read is how much we are willing to be aware of what is really going on in the written stories, and what is really going on in our life stories. I think the reader unlocks the text and the text in turn unlocks the reader. So there’s that dialectical movement there. It is frightening, at times, but there is something weirdly enjoyable about it too. There’s real joy that comes in the conversation. In your article you mention that prophets sometimes lie. Can you say 13
Identity and Interpretation something more about the difference between an intentional false prophecy versus just making a mistake? I think there is intentional lying, at times, on the part of the prophets in the biblical stories. But I think when it comes to interpretation, the difference between intentional and unintentional lying becomes really very hard to decipher. This is because the stories reveal you can be trying very hard not to lie and still end up with a false interpretation. And you can also intend to lie and then have a true interpretation. So “true” interpretation is hard, I think, because it doesn’t have to do only with the intention of the prophets or the readers of the stories about the prophets. Maybe the goal of interpretation should be less to find a “true” word and more to participate in the stories so we can learn more about who we are. Is there ever a time when we should really try to set our own stories to the side to be able to see something new? If so, how would you know when that time is? I think we need to try to get a little distance from our stories when we start thinking that our reading is the only reading. It concerns me when people appear completely certain of their readings, as if there are no other interpretations. To be selfreflective about your own story doesn’t mean that your own history, voice, and assumptions should overwrite everything. We need to remember that people have been reading this book for 2000 years and have read it in all kinds of interesting ways. It seems like interpreting in the context of a community means that things are going to be a whole lot messier, since there are a lot of different stories flying around in a community. People have lots of different convictions and they might be saying different things all at once! Even harder than recognizing that our own interpretations might be wrong is telling someone else that their interpretation might be wrong, I think. How do you tell someone you think they are overwriting the text? I’m actually not sure. I’m also not sure how to do this without coming across, yourself, as someone who is overly certain. It’s easy to become “locked in” to an interpretation even while we are trying to “unlock” someone else. A good question for us to consider is, “How do we disagree with each others’ interpretations without creating more problems in the community?” How would you advise readers of the Bible to read better by consciously reflecting on their own stories and identities? What I would suggest is that they start by carefully reading a story in the Bible. Then they should pinpoint a central question they have about it. Next they should try to get an answer to that question—they should see what the text tells them about it. Finally, they should ask themselves why it is that they are reading the text 14
Interview this way. Why did they come up with this particular question and answer? Again, you’re dealing with your own mind and story when you interpret. Is there something in your story that particularly tilts you to that reading? Ask yourself: “Why am I reading it this way, and not some other way?” I loved when you pointed out that Russian readers, more often than North American readers, recognized that the story of the “prodigal son” in Luke 15 takes place in the context of a famine. Yes. This shows that many Russians are reading the text from a different place than, for example, many Americans. They have a different story, so they read a different story. What we have to ask ourselves is whether our stories are only helping, or whether they are getting in the way of us seeing what someone else might be better able to see. So we should compare our different stories along with our different interpretations? That’s right. And I know this can be challenging. But it’s completely worth the effort because that’s the way we keep on learning about ourselves and about the world. v
Coming in the Spring 2014 issue:
Dr. Gregory Cuéllar on “Border Talk”
Terry C. Muck
y assignment is to write an answer to the question, “How does who you are (your story, social location, context, etc.) affect how you discern the living Word of God?” Let me begin my answer with a specific example of a biblical text, and how my reading of it his changed over the years. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved by pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
I believe our readings of scripture change as the circumstances of our life change. For most of my early and middle adult life, when I read the story of the Good Samaritan, I identified with the priest or Levite (on my bad days) or the Samaritan (on my good days). The question the text engendered for me in those days was whether I would step up to Jesus’ challenge to “love my neighbor as myself,” even when that person(s) embraced religious traditions different from my own.
Terry C. Muck is executive director of The Louisville Institute. Formerly
on the faculty of Austin Seminary, he was the first editor of Insights. He also taught at Asbury Theological Seminary and served as editor of Christianity Today magazine and as executive director of the Christianity Today Institute.
Muck My reading of the story changed after my wife and I divorced. In the dark days that followed our divorce, when I read the story of the Good Samaritan I found myself identifying with the man robbed, stripped, and beaten. I felt like I was lying helpless in a ditch, beaten and stripped by robbers (some of them of my own creation), waiting for someone, anyone, to help me. I did not know who I was. I felt nameless, like the man in Jesus’ story, unable to fall back on my previous status of “faithful Christian,” “good husband,” “loving father,” or any of the other markers of my previous life. My predominant identity had become “a person in need” and the question the story of the Good Samaritan engendered for me was, “Who will love me now?”
Who Am I? One of the lessons I have learned from this is that the reading of scripture cannot help but be a very personal affair. It depends heavily on how you see your identity. One definition of a person’s identity is as the answer the person gives to the question, Who are you? Here’s my answer, my identity: I am the son of a Baptist minister and college professor, Webster Muck. I am short, 66 years old, and bald. These are some of the givens of my identity, things I cannot change. My theological commitments are evangelical Christian, my intellectual interests, the history of religion, my personality leans heavily toward introverted, and I relate to the world with a mixture of fascinated curiosity and intense empathy. I am a citizen of the United States. These are the elements of my identity I can develop and, if need be, change. Finally, I am not a fundamentalist of either the right or the left. I am neither a materialist nor an idealist. That is, I believe in holding strong commitments (religious and otherwise), being willing to champion those commitments to others, but without insisting others have to share my commitments. These features of my identity emerge from things I don’t want to be, what some have called my resistance identity. If that seems a complicated answer to the question, so be it. It is the kind of answer—complex—more and more people give these days. Gone are the days of simple identity (I am a Christian.) Here to stay are the days of complex (hybrid) identities with a dozen or more elements to them. Often the context determines which elements we choose to highlight at any given time.
How I Read the Bible So the follow-up question is, In light of my complex identity, how do I read the Bible? I do believe that my understanding of my complex identity leads to a fairly consistent approach to scripture. I think it can be summarized in three broad statements. First, I read the Bible as a sui generis book. It is not enough to say that I believe the Bible is the word of God, that it communicates inspired truth, that it reveals God’s will, even though I believe it is and does all those things. More is needed in describing my approach to scripture, because God speaks truth and reveals his will 17
Identity and Interpretation in other ways and through other texts. So to communicate the “more” I must say that I read the Bible as a unique, one of a kind, ultimate authority. Second, I read the Bible recognizing that my reading is neither purely human nor solely personal. That is to say, when I read the Bible I recognize that the meanings I extract from it are not just the product of my personality and my historical context (as important as those are as is seen from my example above). God speaks to me through these texts, sending messages that no amount of socio-psychological excavating of my complex identity can connect. In other words, I may hear prophetic utterance in and from these pages. Further, my readings are heavily influenced by the religious tradition to which I belong, by the community of believers with whom I worship. My readings are both existential and traditional. Third, I find myself reading the Bible almost always wondering how my Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim friends might read the same texts. At what points might they see the same things I see and at what points might their readings be different—and for what reasons might they be different? And I find that these musings often influence, and even change, what I am seeing in the texts. In my example above, it was, after all, a Samaritan who helped the unfortunate victim, after Jewish teachers had passed him by. Can this be read as a message that human cooperation and concern must take place in spite of religious difference? Frankly, I can’t see any other way to read it. But I wonder if Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious would read it the same way? I hope to get opportunities to ask. v
Confessing Faith in the Toughest of Times
s he prepares for that grand entrance into the land God has promised Israel, Moses offers in Deut. 26.5-10 what many interpreters call a creed-like confession of faith—confessing yet again that the God who has protected their ancestors since before the time of slavery—has been and continues to be faithful. While confessions of faith have long been a part of Christian worship, some contemporary communities keep their distance from scripted confessions or creeds. Students in my classes often express skepticism about reciting ancient statements of belief. They’re doubtful that everyone who recites them really believes everything they’re saying. And why confess something you don’t actually believe? I once heard Krista Tippett’s conversation with Christian historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who said this about confessions: My faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots, and boredom … all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked on a Sunday morning, “As of 9:20, what do you believe?” And then you sit down with a three-by-five index card saying, “Now let’s see. What do I believe today?” No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now, for a millennium and a half, has said, ‘We believe in one God’?”1
Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses repeatedly confesses his belief in the one God. He confesses to the people of Israel that the God who has promised them land is the same God who freed them from slavery and kept them alive in the desert. Even as I read his confessions of faith, I wonder whether Moses always said such words enthusiastically, or whether sometimes it was hard for Moses to say those words he had done so many times before.
Deanna Thompson is associate professor of religion at Hamline Uni-
versity. She is the author of Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross (Fortress, 2004) and Deuteronomy: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (WJK, forthcoming). Diagnosed with stage IV cancer, she has written a memoir, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace (Wipf & Stock, 2012) and blogs at http://hopingformoreblog.blogspot.com.
Identity and Interpretation In December of 2008, I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. During those early days of the diagnosis, words were hard to come by. In addition to the drought of words to talk about the diagnosis, I also had trouble locating words to talk about— or to—God. Just hours after the diagnosis, our church’s parish nurse came to the hospital with a prayer shawl. The shawl became my most precious possession during that hospital stay. The shawl offered access to this thing called prayer that had suddenly become elusive to me. It offered tangible assurance that we weren’t facing this life-shattering diagnosis alone; it let us know that we were wrapped in the prayers of those who loved us. In the months following I continued to struggle with what to say to God. Sensing the challenge I was facing—likely because it had been her own challenge as well—my mom, who has had her own journey with cancer, pointed me to the place she’d found important solace during her time of struggle: the Psalms. While many would argue that the words of the twenty-third psalm have become ubiquitous and thus cliché, I was drawn into the imagery and the psalmist’s ability to account for the depths—“even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”—as well as for the comfort sought by those who suffer. Talk of God’s preparation of a table for us in the presence of our enemies captured my struggle to embrace the daily gifts of grace spread out before me in the presence of cancer. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” challenged me daily, as my life seemed devoid of much of its former goodness and mercy. Even though it was challenging, for months I recited this psalm every day, trying to rest in the promise of dwelling “in the house of the Lord forever.” Reciting the 23rd Psalm has been a kind of confession of faith for me, even when I had no words of my own. It is also important to acknowledge that the Psalms aren’t simply filled with praise. Many psalms also contain strong words of protest. In fact, Jesus’ cry to God on the cross—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—comes directly from Psalm 22. The psalmist continues, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” I’d be hard pressed to find better words for those experiences of despair I have felt in the worst days of living with cancer. I ache; God seems non-responsive. Where do we go from here? Returning to Moses’ confession of faith in Deuteronomy 26, we see that the vision of the promised land seems so close he can almost taste it. In verse 9 Moses says, “God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” He has kept the people moving in search of this land for forty long years. He doesn’t simply confess that God will get Israel there eventually. It’s like he’s already there. Except he never gets there. He gets to the mountaintop, sees the promised land. But he dies on the mountain, with the land just out of reach. At one point Moses pleads with God, saying, “Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 3.25). Here we have Moses—confessor of faith extraordinaire—essentially challenging God, protesting his fate of not making it all 20
Thompson the way to that extraordinary land promised to his people. Why is it that Moses doesn’t make it all the way? One compelling explanation comes from German writer Franz Kafka, who says: “Moses is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life … Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.”2 In the last five years of living with cancer, I cannot say that I’ve ever thought of cancer as a gift. At the same time, life with cancer has been rich with gifts—cancer just isn’t one of them. One of the most profound gifts I’ve been given is a sense of hope through the support that’s been showered upon us by so many others, both near and far. When the church is being the church, it is present with people in their suffering—it makes those confessions of faith even when those of who are in bad straits can’t locate words to do so. And when the church is being the church, it also makes space for those of us who dance with despair to hear Moses’, the psalmist’s, even Jesus’ words of protest, allowing those words to become our words as well. These confessions of faith alongside words of protest have given me hope for more than all the bad that cancer brings with it. Scripture’s confession that death does not have the last word gives me hope that there’s more to life than testing, suffering, crucifixion. Even when I can’t do it on my own, the community of faith helps me hope in the more of God’s promised future—where there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying, no more dying, only life, only love. v NOTES 1. Jaroslav Pelican, “The Need for Creeds,” Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, March 20, 2008, http://being.publicradio.org/programs/pelikan/transcript.shtml 2. Franz Kafka, Diaries 1914-1923, ed. Max Brod, trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1965), 195-6.
Identity Between Story & History: Reading the New Testament in Chronological Order
Hans Vium Mikkelsen
t is pretty obvious that our own context, situation, and background influences the way we read the Bible. Both the questions we ask the texts and the questions we see the texts ask us are, of course, influenced by our own culture, personal background, and actual setting. And this is the way it should be, since the Bible is interpreted in this way and used as a source for life. But some may ask if this acceptance of the role of the reader erodes the authority of the Bible as the word of God? Well, I don’t think so. First of all, I think it is necessary to keep the dialectic between the Bible viewed as the word of God and the Bible viewed as words of human beings. We only have the word of God in the words of human beings, but we do read these human words as a human witness of the revelation of God. In short: revelation is not equal to timeless truth.1 In my job as associate professor (with focus on Systematic Theology) at the Evangelical Lutheran Danish Church’s Centre for Theology and Theological Education, I have twice offered a course in the New Testament, where we read the various texts of the New Testament in the order in which it was written2 In this way I try, in praxis, to mix a narrative perception with a historical approach. The historical approach is here primarily defined by the attempt to construct a plausible chronological order of the texts within the New Testament. The narrative approach is related to the way we read the text in the class. The aim is to discuss what we as readers notice in the text, its plots, its structures, themes etc. The discussion is free; there are no restrictions except that the reader has to be able to argue for his or her interpretation. No one is expert in the classroom, or we are all experts. The course takes ten days. We meet every morning for a three-hour session,
Hans Vium Mikkelsen is associate professor at the Danish Evangelical
Lutheran Church’s Centre for Theology and Theological Education. His main area of interests are systematic theology of the twentieth and twenty-first century, fundamental dogmas, and the interrelation between theology and society. He is the author of Reconciled Humanity: Karl Barth in Dialogue (Eerdmans, 2010).
Mikkelsen where we discuss what we have been reading so far; the rest of the day is assigned for the next day’s reading. The one major hermeneutical clue in our discussion is very simple, but also for some of the participants quite hard to keep: you are only allowed to discuss what we have been reading so far. When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not know the content of Mark. When we read Matthew we do not know the content of John and so on. The outcome of reading the Bible in this way is quite stunning. The theoretical insight that Paul’s letters are the oldest witness of the early Christianity becomes here evident in praxis, as we read the gospels in the light of Paul and not vice versa (which we tend to do, at least from the perspective of the pulpit). Further, it becomes very clear that the Bible does not have a univocal voice, and that the attempt to construct such a one is an attempt that fails to take the diversity of the Bible into consideration. By reading the Bible as a narrative, structured by its chronological order, it becomes evident that the Bible in itself reflects a variety of theological ideas and developments. Some ideas change, others are rejected (often indirectly by stating another idea instead), and others again can be seen in different versions, partly depending on the actual context of the different congregations in which the various texts have been written. Let me here just mention two examples of the outcome of the reading within the field of eschatology and christology. The eschatological perspectives change throughout the reading of the scripture. The early letters of Paul are strongly eschatological. The expectation of the Second Coming is the very frame for Paul’s preaching and ethical advice (Why marry and establish families, when Christ will come again before you die and the earth will come to an end?). Thus, the time here and now is no less than an interim between the two major events: the coming of Christ at Bethlehem, and the coming of Christ in the future. The authority of Paul is closely connected to the authority of the risen Christ. Paul is a disciple as good as any, because he has also seen the risen Christ. Thus Paul refers to the crucified, resurrected, and risen Christ. He never mentions what Jesus did or said. But as it turns out that Christ did not come again as soon as proclaimed by Paul, the eschatological framework had to change. The authority belongs no longer to the charismatic leader, who has seen the risen Christ; instead it is now placed at the earthly Jesus, as we hear the witness of him in the gospels. The death and resurrection of Jesus must now be seen in relation to what Jesus actually did and said.3 But the Gospels’ understandings of what it means to confess Jesus is Christ, and why it matters that he died on the cross, certainly differ. Who is he, exactly? What did he accomplish by dying? What is the outcome of his death? The variations of the words of the cross are an illuminating example of the different accents and shifts in motifs in the New Testament. But this may be a theme for another reflection. It is my claim that the Bible itself is contextual from its very beginning. The contextual approach cannot be written off as the theological spin off from the reader-response theory. The Bible is in itself a book that is determined from its various contexts. The biblical writers do not just want to tell the same story, they want to 23
Identity and Interpretation tell the story in another way, as they want to either correct, elaborate, or put the gospel into another perspective—depending on their own context, background, and situation. And when we preach the gospel, we are in the very same situation, as being witnesses to the witness. To read the Bible contextually is, according to my point of view, a biblical enterprise, as the Bible in itself is a witness of such a contextual process. Thus, the Bible is not a key, but an open book. Thanks be to God for that. v NOTES 1. I have explored this point from a systematic point of view in my analysis of Barth’s perception of the Bible as the witness of revelation. See Mikkelsen, Hans Vium. Reconciled Humanity. Karl Barth in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 2010, 29-42). 2. I am well aware that it is not possible to agree on a final chronological order within the New Testament. However, this is not the major point from a systematic theological perspective. What matters is to see the internal development within the New Testament and how the texts are reflecting an ongoing theological discussion and interpretation. The estimated chronological order is one way to reorganize the various texts within the New Testament. Another way of structuring it would be to read the various texts according to their differences in genres. 3. The gospels’ different descriptions of the life and death of Jesus do not give us perfect access to the historical Jesus. Thus I have chosen to describe the gospels’ description of Jesus as the earthly Jesus, as we only have access to him in the gospels’ narrated form.
Join the Austin Seminary Book Club Austin Seminary has started a book club on Goodreads.com and we want you to join us! In just a few steps, you can join Goodreads.com and the virtual “Austin Seminary Book Club,” open to anyone who wishes to join and participate in monthly discussions. We’ve selected ten books to read during this academic year. On the third week of each month, an Austin Seminary faculty member or alumni/ae will moderate, asking questions and leading discussions about the book. For October we’ve selected Gordon Lathrop’s The Pastor, A Spirituality; Professor Jennifer Lord is leading the discussion. Goodreads.com is free and anyone can create an account. Only registered users may participate in discussions, but anyone can follow along.
For more information, visit our web site: www.austinseminary.edu/bookclub
Pastors’ Panel We spoke with alums: The Reverend James Lee, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Fellowship, Austin; The Reverend Dan Jean, pastor of New Hope Church in Converse, Texas, The Reverend Kendra Thompson, minister of faith formation, Edwards Congregational Church in Davenport, Iowa, and The Reverend Tracey Beadle, associate pastor of Manchaca United Methodist Church, Austin, to reflect on the relationship between identity and interpretation. James Lee: I view scripture as a Presbyterian Church planter who serves a racially diverse missional church. As a missional church, we find ourselves working more often through economic, social, and justice issues, which definitely impacts our theology and identity. As a church planter, I deal with many people who have been marginalized by the church because of their lifestyles, age, consequences of bad decisions, or race, who appreciate me approaching scripture so that it is more relevant to their circumstances and life issues. Dan Jean: Growing up white and male in America’s Midwest put me in a privileged place. I felt normal—and the way things were supposed to be aligned with how and where I lived. There were few challenges and no other voices daring to be raised. So much has changed in the last few decades that push against the complacency and isolation of the 1950s. Answering a call to ministry later in my life, and finally being allowed to hear and respond to those other voices, has created a dynamic shift in the way I read and then teach the gospel message. Kendra Thompson: At Edwards, I minister to children who are a third my age —or younger. This poses a unique challenge for interpreting scripture. How can I make the Bible come alive for the very young? While parents hope their children leave worship with some sacred experience, they do not have unrealistic expectations. And yet, these kids know the biblical narratives. For me, interpretation of scripture has to do with simplifying the Bible without distorting it or making it overly literal. What is that nugget of wisdom that a child will remember? This is a challenge, but a fun task. Tracey Beadle: I am an only child raised by a single mother, born into a family with a long history of alcoholism on both sides. I was the first on either side to be educated beyond high school and I’m female. I was raised in North Carolina and, until my early thirties, exposed to a Christianity that holds that the Bible’s authority resides in the fact that it is “The literal and inerrant Word of God.” Steeped in this view, I grew up fearing desperately for the eternal souls of everyone I loved most. My mother experienced judgment and exclusion from the church because she was a divorced, single mother. And I was most certainly going to hell, because I had the audacity to believe that, despite what Paul might say in 1st Timothy, God might be calling me to preach. 25
Pastors’ Panel Thompson: I am a very sensory person, so, if I’m going to understand something, I really want to feel it, see it, taste it, and touch it. When I read scripture, I invite my senses into the process. I really like lectio divina for this. Lectio validates my rightbrained sensibilities. It’s like a tea bag seeping into a boiling cup of water; I love the opportunity to let scripture seep into me. The risk of this style of interpretation is that scripture becomes overly personalized: How can I get something out of scripture; what can I use for my Sunday school lessons? Beadle: As I read scripture I am hypersensitive to texts that can be, in any way, interpreted as excluding any from the love and grace of God. I have a tendency to read scripture (even those really scary passages where God is apparently smiting everyone) with an eye and ear determined to uncover, beneath it all, the God I know in Jesus Christ who came to save and not condemn. I suppose the risk I take in leaning so heavily on grace is that I may minimize, at times, the reality of the effects of sin. Based on my experience, though, the greatest challenge does not lie in recognizing our need for salvation, but in receiving it. Jean: The church message that was planted and grew into faith resulted in a righteous person who simply looked like me—like my family, my community, and my country. Those who did not fit had no real place in the “normal” church. I hear a different message coming from the church in recent years. The message of Christ is not one of a majority or a dominant norm, but rather an inclusive message that calls every person to relationship. The closed doors of the church are opening, and as a pastor, teacher, and community leader, it is my role to preach Christ, not to protect the status quo. I face the challenge today of holding the church community together while ever pushing it toward a wider and more diverse culture. Lee: One of the core values of our church is to be relevant. How do we honor the message of the past in scripture while allowing it to speak to our present and future? This is my struggle every time I approach the scriptures. I hear the voices of seminary professors, colleagues, parishioners, and associates outside of the church. The exegetical method I learned gives me room to ask different questions of the text and its cultural past. When I consider addressing the relevancy of the text to the congregation I serve, I am mindful of the “hermeneutical bridge” where we transition from our research to the sermon. That being said, my approach to scripture could result in interpreting a message of today that was not explicitly meant when it was originally written. The historical, social, and ethnic contexts were different, so the impact of the message can be different. There are times when I focus more on the social message even if I sometimes miss the impact of verb tenses. I still expect the gospel and good news message in scripture to speak to our sinful condition and how God redeemed and reconciled us through Christ Jesus. v
Required Reading Books recommended by Austin Seminary faculty My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, Christian Wiman, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $24 (also available in Kindle and Nook editions). Reviewed by Timothy D. Lincoln, associate dean for seminary effectiveness and director of the Stitt Library, Austin Seminary.
church and to begin praying again. Put another way, to continue asserting that he did not believe in God simply did not square with his incorrigible experiences of grace. In the book, Wiman moves easily from teasing out the theological themes in a poem to sharp observations based on theologians like George Lindbeck and Dietrich Bonheoffer, and then to reflections on his own experience. If you are blessed with placid faith untroubled by doubts, do not read this book. It will only make you mad. If you have fallen out of love with God, if orthodoxy seems to talk about questions that no one ever asks, or if faith mostly seems to be faith-despite-experience, I encourage you to read this book as slowly as you can. I found that two paragraphs gave me enough to think about for an entire day. And sometimes, in the reading itself, the bright abyss of the living God burned me and made me new.
came across this book because it showed up in my Amazon recommendations list. I began it because I thought that reading a “spiritual book” would be good for me and because I thought that a poet like Wiman (editor of Poetry magazine) might write well. To say that he does is like saying that Leo Messi is a pretty good soccer player. Wiman writes powerfully from his life, shaped in his west Texas childhood by Christianity, by a matter-of-fact atheism for most of his life, and then, at great personal cost, by his struggles with cancer. This slim volume is neither a spiritual autobiography like Augustine’s Confessions, nor a work of technical theology. Some of the book’s best bits, in fact, are his blasts at Christian theologians who like ideas better than life, and ideas about God better than the wrenching, needle-in-the-spine reality of encounters with the living God. For Wiman, faith seems to mean gesturing gratefully toward God as the source of life. He testifies that such faithas-trust happens because life presents us with pain, joy, and creativity that demand a deep response from each of us, not because of the intellectual sense that doctrine makes. The figure of the suffering Christ reveals God as the God of our pain and sorrows. For Wiman, rediscovering that he believed in Christ in this sense help him to reconnect with the life of the
God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction, Adrian Thatcher. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 283 pages, $36.95. Reviewed by David H. Jensen, Professor in The Clarence N. and Betty B. Frierson Distinguished Chair of Reformed Theology, Austin Seminary.
ebates about sex and gender in Christian communities often get framed as if the churches are facing new questions. Thatcher, a British practical theologian, shows us that the debates and questions are as old as Christian tradition itself. His book, which can serve both as a classroom textbook and as an introduction to theology and sexuality for the general reader, combines several genres: historical theology, doctrinal theology, and ethics. It
Required Reading riage. Marriage provides the norm for Christian sexual relations; marriage is where sex belongs and is best expressed. But as Thatcher expounds this norm, his conservative theology yields some radical implications. Thatcher quickly dispels the myth that the New Testament “celebrates” marriage. Early Christian writings are at best lukewarm toward the institution, and much of the New Testament witness extolls singleness: “the New Testament is scarcely in favor of marriage at all” (79). Despite this ambivalence, Christians can celebrate marriage as a blessing from God because it draws on the covenantal themes central to the scriptures. Here Thatcher develops a rich theology of marriage, grounded in the triune God. The God who is eternal relationship intends God’s creatures for relationship. This intention is communicated to humanity in covenant made to God’s people Israel and revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. This God, in short, promises to be with God’s people. One of the ways we respond to this God is by making promises and covenants with one another. Marriage marks us as people of covenant, pledged and bound to one another for the sake of flourishing in God’s world. This theology, unlike many earlier versions in Christian history, expressly names the equality and mutuality of the partners as a fundamental marker of marriage. And, in an interesting gloss on church history, Thatcher (who is Anglican) notes that it is the one sacrament that the priest does not administer; rather, the couple administers the sacrament to each other, while the priest stands as witness. Sex within marriage, in this understanding, is not tolerated as a necessity for procreation or as a means of controlling lust. Rather, sex is sacramental because it is one of the ways couples express the promises of marriage to one another. Thatcher asks whether these markers of marriage can be extended to same-sex couples and answers with a resounding “yes.” Along the way, he entertains multiple arguments against same-sex marriage and finds them all defective.
is as easy to read as it is engaging, and is simultaneously conservative and radical. Thatcher is more careful than many other writers in his excavation of the church’s many traditions related to sex and gender. But his project does not rest there: he does not simply uncover the many forgotten things that the church has said about sex; he also asks how these ancient traditions might be articulated anew today. In the process, Thatcher shakes many cherished idols on both the Christian right and left. The book begins with a statement that will shock many: “For the greater part of Christian history, it did not occur to anyone even to think that there were two distinct sexes” (7). This rather surprising claim flies in the face the modern (conservative and liberal) assumption that there are self-evident, biologically distinct, entities called “men” and “women.” But, as Thatcher surveys ancient Greco-Roman conceptions of sex and the history of Christian theology, his argument may convince even skeptical readers. Our forebears, Thatcher claims, conceived of humanity as one sex, “man,” in which the differences between men and women were achieved over time, in the lives of persons shaped by the gospel and culture. These differences were inherently unstable, and ultimately relativized in Christian baptism. The final truth about humanity is not that we are created male and female, but that in Christ we are made a new creation, blessed and claimed by a God beyond gender, who shapes us for communion in Christ where there is neither male nor female. As convincing as Thatcher makes his case, however, many questions remain: Short of the eschaton, what are we to make of the differences between men and women now? Does this promise of the eschatological erasure of sexual difference risk repeating the sins of patriarchy all over again, in which the “female” gets subsumed into a generic (“male”) understanding of human nature? Even if these questions remain unanswered, Thatcher convincingly demonstrates the subversive nature of Christian approaches to gender. If Thatcher radically re-conceives gender, he initially appears conservative in his interpretation of sex and mar-
Continued on page 32
Cooperstown, New York © National Baseball Hall of Fame Library,
Eloquent Witness Paul K. Hooker
his summer, I crossed an item off my “bucket list”: I spent a day in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where the heroes of professional baseball are commemorated with bronze plaques bearing information about their baseball careers. Statistics abound—home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, consecutive games played, years managed, pennants won, strikeouts, ERAs—it’s as close as a baseball geek gets to heaven. Unique among all the plaques is the one commemorating Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese, shortstop for Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1940s and 1950s. I remember Pee Wee Reese not as a player, but from his early 1960s TV broadcasts— alongside Dizzy Dean—of the Saturday afternoon “Game of the Week.” Reese was quiet against Dean’s raucous humor, patient with Dean’s flights of factual fancy, down-to-earth against Dean’s outsized ego. But none of that landed him in the Hall. Reese’s plaque speaks of “intangible qualities of subtle leadership on and off the field” and of a “dependable” glove and a “reliable” bat—hardly the sort of hyperbole that earns one a place in the Hall. It lauds his infielding skills and “inspirational play,” but offers nary a stat. Indeed, it isn’t until you read the final sentence
Paul Hooker is associate dean for ministerial formation and advanced studies at Austin Seminary. An Old Testament scholar and author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, a commentary in the Westminster Bible Companion Series, he also writes and lectures extensively on the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Christianity and Culture of the plaque that you know the real reason for his enshrinement: “Instrumental in easing acceptance of Jackie Robinson as baseball’s first black performer.” Concealed in those few words is an incredible courage. Pee Wee Reese—almost alone in all of white professional baseball—had the courage to see in Jackie Robinson a man, rather than merely a black man, a teammate rather than a threat. He offered Robinson a friendship that bore quiet but eloquent witness to the birthing of a new social order. Pee Wee Reese was not the star of that new order. He didn’t usher it in by dint of his athletic efforts. But without him, how much longer would it have been in coming? And at what cost? Since that afternoon in the Hall, I’ve been meditating on Pee Wee Reese as a metaphor for the church. Like him, our calling is not to garner attention for ourselves—not to be biggest or best in budget or building—but rather to bear eloquent witness to the birthing of a new way, God’s new creation. We are not the main event in God’s redemptive drama. But our witness just might serve to “ease acceptance” of it by living out the possibility that things-as-they-are are not things-as-theywill-be. I think of the church as, at heart, an eschatological community. At its best, the church endeavors to live not according to the norms of the culture around it, but on the strength of the future God intends and has already revealed in Jesus Christ. We participate in God’s new creation by living differently, even as we live as part of creation as it is. We bear witness to the power and pattern of that new creation visible in Christ. But what does that witness look like? I suspect there are many ways to answer that question. I’d like to offer just one; a sentence that is found in (of all places!) the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In its section, “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity,” the Book of Order meditates on the calling of the church, on what it means that the church is the body of Christ. It borrows Paul’s imagery in 1 Corinthians 13 of the three great spiritual resources arrayed against the centripetal forces of conflict and cultural narcissism that would tear the church apart—faith, hope, and love. And of the third, the Book of Order has this to say: The church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down (Book of Order, F-1.0301). Note that the church “is to be”—as opposed to simply “is”—a community of love. The language is anticipatory as much as it is descriptive. Being a community of love is the aim of the church’s existence. However far short it falls of that aim, the church strives in the direction of love, confident that it will fulfill its calling, more as the result of God’s grace than of its own inherent goodness. The eschatological community of the church is described by three characteristics: an awareness of its own and other’s sin and a willingness to forgive and be forgiven; a commitment to reconciliation; and willingness to tear down the “walls of hostility.” I want to suggest that these descriptors might be distilled to the terms humility, reconciliation, and trust, and that they might form an informal list of virtues of the eschatological church, measures of the eloquence of our corporate witness to a new creation being born. 30
Hooker Humility might be thought of as an awareness of the boundaries of one’s knowledge and capabilities. Gordon Lathrop describes a community of native people in Canada, commonly called the “Yellowknife,” who have named themselves the Tetsot’ine, “those who know something a little.” Their name reflects a respectful and careful common life of a people surrounded by a vast and mysterious land marked by powerful forces: no one knows everything about such a land. But their name also reflects a community that treasures the life-giving and survival-enabling skills of the things they do know together.1
Lathrop goes on to suggest that the name invites Christians “to know the things we really do know … and to be silent before the great mysteries that remain.” That strikes me as a good definition of eschatological humility. Because we have seen the power and pattern of God’s new creation revealed in Jesus Christ, we can “know the things we really do know”—that sin and death are not the final realities, that life and hope survive the worst the world can do. At the same time, we must remain “silent before the great mysteries that remain,” especially as that silence serves as a hedge against moral superiority, intellectual arrogance, and cultural triumphalism. The church does well to remember that, in John’s great apocalyptic vision, there is “no Temple in the city” of God (Rev. 21:22). The value of the church is not ultimate but proximate. It is a sign of the coming of God’s new creation; it is not the new creation itself. The church’s language about reconciliation is rooted primarily in 2 Corinthians 5:19: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. There is a lot of discussion these days about the possibilities of reconciliation in both church and politics, and much of the tone is pessimistic. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (the circles in which I most often travel), there are voices saying that efforts at reconciliation across the theological divides among us are at best futile and perhaps even unfaithful; better, insist these voices, that we gather into tribes of the “like-minded,” so as to accomplish the mission of the church with less internal friction. Maybe. But note that, for Paul at least, reconciliation is not a human work but a divine one, and the church is entrusted not with accomplishing the reconciliation but with the message of its possibility. We are, in Paul’s eyes, not the agents of God’s reconciliation, but the witness to it. If that is true, no withdrawal into camps of common conscience can ever be faithful, because it abandons the effort to live out the eschatological hope of our unity in Christ. Trust may be the most difficult of these virtues because it requires of us vulnerability to others. In conflicted contexts, vulnerability is counter-intuitive, and— some would say—impossible. If I am convinced that you represent a threat to me, do I not have an obligation to defend myself against that threat? But is not such a view of trust essentially reactive in character, permitting the actions of the other to define the commitments of the self? What if trust were proactive? What if, like love, trust can only be given and not earned? What if trust is not a response to the trustworthiness of the other, but an expression of the self-identity of the one who 31
Christianity and Culture trusts? True, it might lead us to the cross; but have we not been there before, and found therein redemptive possibilities? I’m thinking of Pee Wee Reese again. In the recent motion picture “42” there is a scene in which Pee Wee Reese publicly embraces his teammate Jackie Robinson on the field before a hostile crowd. I don’t know if it happened the way the movie depicts it, but I hope so. It seems to me that Reese’s embrace bears the sort of eschatological witness God summons from the church. It is humble in its readiness to claim what it knows, even in the face of great forces it cannot control. It is reconciliatory, recognizing a fundamental unity between God’s creatures that reaches beneath all difference. And it is trusting in the extreme, expressing its basic openness even as it accepts vulnerability to threats of reprisal and hatred. If the church loved like this, what an eloquent witness that would be. Thanks be to God for Pee Wee Reese, and for all he has to teach us. v NOTE 1. Gordon Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 99.
Required Reading Continued from page 28 the first time a couple has sex, and finally the ratification of marriage in a wedding. Thatcher compares the threefold stages of marriage to the widespread practice of cohabitation in Western cultures. Here he distinguishes between prenuptial cohabitation (where the couple intends marriage) and non-nuptial cohabitation (where they do not), and affirms the former while rejecting the latter. This casts discussions of “premarital sex” in a different light. Indeed, what is often considered “premarital” sex is really not premarital at all. Instead, it is sex that occurs in a broader (and more historically consistent) understanding of marriage, as a couple journeys in covenant and learns what it means to make promises to each other. Thatcher’s suggestions will ruffle many “traditional” feathers. But in an age when many feel unwelcome by the church’s rhetoric about sex and marriage, Thatcher’s careful examination of history and theology forces us to ask how faithful that rhetoric really is to our traditions. v
This argument indicates that the churches not simply tolerate same-sex marriage; their marital theology may demand it. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Thatcher’s book is his re-examination of the ancient (and forgotten) practice of betrothal. Here he asks where marriage begins, and again he shows that our forebears often had different answers from our own. Today we tend to think of marriage beginning with a wedding. But Thatcher argues that “marriages do not begin with weddings. Weddings solemnize or ratify marriages … Many couples who are not yet formally married are nonetheless exercising chastity in their sexual relations” (234). The Bible recognizes betrothal as a state of marriage (with Joseph and Mary being prominent examples). The medieval church consecrated betrothal as the first of three stages in the journey of marriage. It marked a commitment that has “reached the point where it is exclusive, but still provisional” (245). This stage of betrothal was followed by the consummation of marriage
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