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.
Ya mean the “Word of God” is alive! Yes, and His name is Jesus. Good stuff Mark
“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.”
Wow, I love where this conversation is going.
How would you define the difference between a missional hermeneutic and a redemptive hermeneutic?
Good question, Anne. I think they could be very similar depending on how you defined redemptive (and missional). The thing I worry about with both words is their capacity to be defined only in relation to a personal or private salvation. Missional, the way I’m using it, grabs way more territory and it does so because its primary questions are about God and not first about the needs of the individual. Redemption could also be understood in this kind of larger sense, but often is seen as related only to the salvation of individuals and in Christological terms. Again, the thing about missional the way I understand it, is that it is more broadly theological. It is not just Christological, but Trinitarian. How do you see it?
From my understanding, a “redemptive movement hermeneutic” looks for the forward movement of the triune God within the text. It asks the question: Does this passage teach a “static”, unchanging truth consistent with the all of scripture or do we see a “fluidity” and redemptive movement in how the Spirit of the text is nudging the NT audience forward into the new Mission of God’s Kingdom?
As I see it, a redemptive hermeneutic looks beyond the “already” with eyes to see how God might be working the “not yet” into our present reality. It recognizes that the Kingdom of God is fluid, not static.
I’m wondering if your uses of the words “passive” and “active” can be viewed with similar meaning to how I describe “static” and “fluid”?
Sounds like a similar impulse. And I think that the subject-object point I’m making tends toward a more static viewpoint, but is a different conceptual metaphor. I definitely like dynamic over static, which is part of what I mean by a living word.
Mark, I’ve been reading with great interest Kyle Holton’s excellent article “De-Franchising Missions” in the Missio Dei Journal you recommended. The following statement that he makes captures some of the “Kingdom fluidity” I reference below as well as the need to give “creative space” (or “roominess” as you call it) to our mission as Kingdom people.
Kyle writes: “Put succinctly, insider movements represent creative spaces for reimagining traditional Christianity not as a religion but as people shaped by performative Christology and centered on the celebration of the kingdom of God uniquely symbolized in the act of hospitality.”
The unique situations for believers within these Muslim contexts serve to caution us (as Western Christians) against making dogmatic conclusions in terms of what a Christian mission looks like. It also demonstrates, in tangible ways, how interpreting and applying spiritual/scriptural truth is not always as black and white as we have made it.
Thanks for giving me much to think about this week.
Mark Love, I’m so glad I came across your blog, via Jay Guin’s. I’ve known of you, and known you slightly, since ACU Lectureship days, and its great to see where you are and where your’e going.
Norma, glad you found me. I remember you well both from Wichita Falls and ACU’s lectureship. I hope you are well.
Strong stuff. Very strong.
Mark, great article. Whenever I get together with two or more believers, I always start with a prayer requesting that the moment be a “Holy Spirit board meeting.” Thanks for your insights.
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