Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lessons from Sem 1 - Hermeneutics Matter

Probably the single most important lesson I learned in Seminary was the role of hermeneutics.

I thought I knew something about interpretation and cultural embeddedness when I entered school. I was wrong. The depth of the chasm between our modern day way of living, thinking, and writing and the Biblical contexts is huge, and has changed much of how I conceive of God, Jesus, Christianity, the Church, and scripture.

In my Christian upbringing, the Bible was considered something not tainted by cultural or historical forces, that stood on its own apart from any serious interpretation issues. In short, the Bible was this thing that was clear and plain for anyone to read. Disagreement about interpretation of the scriptures meant that you were wrong, and needed a little more submission to the "clear and plain" commands of God.

As I've rubbed elbows with Africans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Chinese Christians, I've come to realize how heavily interpretation depends on the place we come from. For me, it comes from a white, middle-class background in which education is a given, democracy is given, and individualism is highly valued; my hermeneutic is borne out of the legacy of freedom. For the older African Americans I worship with, their framework of understanding scripture is borne out of the legacy of oppression. Based on these legacies, the differences in understanding what scripture is saying can be stark and harsh.

I've come to realize that this cultural and temporal experiment in which God has placed all of us is valuable in understanding the many aspects of God, but horrible for understanding this a-cultural scripture I was taught about.

The lessons of hermeneutics, though, tells me that the authors of scripture were part of the same grand experiment that we are. I can't just jettision middle-class america and think I can interpret scripture as if it is "plain and clear". Instead, I must slowly and painstakingly transform my understanding to be a first-century Jew, the remnant of the Chosen People of God, oppressed by Rome, and witness to this Messiah who ripped to shreds every notion of what I thought a messiah should be. I must transform my understanding to be like the ancient Hebrew who thought that gods were things particular to a geography, or to be like the Israelite who is part of the kingdom of David. The distance between me and them gets greater the more I work to understand the Biblical authors, and the more disturbing and radical scripture becomes as I understand what those Biblical authors may have really been talking about.

Clear and plain, I have learned, is a myth prescribed by those who don't understand the true gulf between the modern "us" and the ancient "them".

One of the places I have come to appreciate the New Testament better is through the image of Kingdom. The overwhelming majority of scripture speaks of Jesus coming to set up the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Not to save me, as if His only goal was to take me from hell to heaven. Instead, His goal was broader than my individualistic culture - it was a kingdom, a people, an extended community - the problem Jesus was trying to solve wasn't answered by me getting "saved", it was answered through a kingdom!

What on earth can this possibly mean for the way I (we?) do Christianity?


Tracy P. said...

I hope this is the beginning of a long series, Ben! But what does the kingdom concept do to the lyrics "you took the fall and thought of ME above all"? Hmmm...

So what seminary did those "you just need to submit a little more" guys go to?

Benjamin said...

I don't think there is enough space in comments to really unpack how backwards the "he thought of me above all" is. I say that not because it is just plain backwards, but because the reality is that it is partially right, but only kinda. It's complicated.

Just so your prepared, I'm going to get a little preachy.

In any case, Matthew 10:26-42 seems to indicate a pledging of allegiance to Jesus like one would pledge allegiance to a king. In return for allegiance, the king confers certain rights and responsibilities upon the person. One of those things the person should expect from the king is protection from outside forces that will destroy.

What the Israelites seemed to expect from their messiah, though, is that the outside forces were physical entities, like Rome or Babylon. But the radicality of Christ is that the kingdom isn't "earthly" like physical empires, but is more spiritual. Christ came to protect from the forces of sin and death, from despair and hunger.

As people watched Jesus and his forming of the new kingdom, with himself as prophet/king in a way similar to David, it appears that those outside forces won. It appeared that Jesus's way of spurning earthly power for spiritual strength was defective, because Rome killed him. Both Rome and Israel made an example of him for being so bold as to try to create a kingdom of hope and faith and love. He was made a scapegoat for all those who might follow him. But those physical forces couldn't hold him. This king was better and more powerful than crude weapons like swords and crosses. He beat death, and showed how powerful he was to protect us from it. He showed in a way that no one expected that love actually wins. This was the king of kings, undestroyable by the rudimentary weapons of lesser kings.

So, when Jesus took the fall, it seems to me that he was thinking of WE, his kingdom, his people. It's not that big of a leap to get to ME, but it does take the focus off of the kingdom rules Jesus was trying to establish. Instead, I like to think of it directly backwards. He took the fall, and I think of him. He is my example, my redeemer, and my king. He protected me from those forces of darkness, he bought my allegiance with a price, and I am no longer my own. I belong to him, and his kingdom.

Well, as I look over what I've written, it seems inadequate and hackneyed. That's what I get for cramming a book into a comment on a blog. Hopefully, it makes some sense.

Benjamin said...

Oh, and for your other question - I'm not going to answer directly, since I'm not looking to pronounce judgment on all those who graduated from such institutions.

Suffice it to say that all the ministers I had growing (and through my college years) were from prominent southern seminaries.

Tracy P. said...

Wow, you just SO rewarded me for pushing your buttons! I hope you don't do that with your kids. ;-)

I think that comment is probably worth another post. It's not inadequate at all--it's just that kingdom thinking is not the norm of the church born of our individualistic culture, so it's a little tough to harness in terms that would sum it up and help people actually make a transition in their thinking. There are SO many implications, and so much of our thinking is just enough backwards that we don't notice, yet are missing a feast by settling for it.

I love the thought that the fact that he took the fall makes me think of HIM, and therein lies my salvation and my hope.