I’m currently writing an article for Missio Dei, a great online journal you should know about, on missional interpretation. I’m assuming this means that it might make a difference in how you read Scripture if your orienting perspective was the mission of God. I’m convinced that the questions we bring to Scripture dictate the kinds of answers we get, and so starting with the right question is a big deal. If you start with the question, “how did the early church worship?” you’ll get different answers than if you ask “how is this text a clue to joining God’s mission in the world?”
This week, I’m going to the SBL/AAR meetings specifically so I can attend sessions that are exploring the idea of reading the Bible around questions like the latter one. They’ve been at this for a few years now and the project is gaining momentum. Recently, George Hunsberger wrote an article for Missiology journal that outlined four basic approaches that have been proposed for a “missional hermeneutic.”
All of them have merit. I like some better than others. But here’s the thing. All of them assume an active, individual interpreter, working some mastery over a passive text. The interpreter is an active subject, Scripture is a passive object. In the world of subject-object interactions, some are better than others. But I’m wondering if there might be approaches that break up a subject-object conception of reading that allow the text to be more active for the sake of discerning God’s calling on our lives in God’s mission.
One way to get at this would be to say that texts, especially Sacred texts, are living. They don’t just represent things. When we read Scripture, we’re not just visiting Bible land. Texts also do things. When we read Scripture, we assume that God can encounter us in our present circumstances. So, how would we read Scripture that begins with an assumption of an active or living text?
The best way to break up a subject-object world is to introduce a third, an other. Add another person and now its hard to define our little encounter strictly in terms of subject and object. Who is the subject? And who is the object? And if we put the text in between people so that both persons are simultaneously active and receptive, then the text is the common term. The text is authoritative. Both persons are active and receptive in relation to an active, living text.
And here’s my point: this escape from a subject-object mentality creates a certain kind of roominess. The interchange of giving and receiving around a Sacred text creates space, and this space is room for the Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit does not work on individual readers. I am saying that the Holy Spirit works between us and not just within us. And the presence of an other keeps us from too easily confusing what we think with the Holy Spirit.
In the master’s program I direct, we use a practice that I learned from the good folks at Church Innovations called Dwelling in the Word. It’s a simple practice. The text is read (the same text over a period of time). Silence is observed to deepen the listening. Then people find a “relatively friendly looking stranger” (an other), and “listen one another into free speech.” Then each reports to the larger group what they heard their partner say. It’s a powerful exercise. And when my students reflect on the exercise, its not hard to see how this use of the text has been used to create a shared imagination about what God is calling them too. They’ve created space to listen together to the Holy Spirit. Scripture has been a living word.
So, as I think about missional interpretation, I like the options that Hunsberger outlines, but I also want to think about the use of the text as a living word in communities of interpretation, not simply as an object from which answers to my questions can be wrested.