A few months ago several groups gathered to hear or read together passages from the Bible and talk about them. Nothing too unusual about that, but those particular groups were participating in a research project as part of a Carey Master of Applied Theology course in Intercultural Bible Reading.
What we wanted to explore was how the Bible was heard and responded to by people of different cultural and social identities and locations. What would they make of it, and what would it make of them?
Each student enlisted a group that had some cultural or social characteristics in common. There was a group of Fijians who form a worshipping community in Auckland; Burmese refugee women; Filipinos attached to a Baptist Church in East Auckland; first generation immigrants in a Pentecostal congregation; Ni-Vanuatu women seasonal workers in the South Island; a home group comprising recent immigrants from China; young people whose parents immigrated from Hong Kong who continue in their parents’ church but in a separate, English-speaking congregation; a Tamil group (from both India and Sri Lanka) in an Auckland Presbyterian Church; Cook Island born adults who have all brought up their families in New Zealand; a New Zealand born Samoan group representing diverse experiences of life and stages of faith; and a mixed group of café customers who have no church affiliation and choose to describe themselves as “atheists and non-god-botherers.”
Two passages were chosen, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the account of Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-18). The process was simple. A group would meet, the passage for that session would be read, and, acting as facilitator, the student would invite the group to comment on what they had heard and how they responded to it. The conversation (running for about an hour) would be recorded and transcribed and those transcripts (with English translation where necessary) were brought to a block course at which the students discussed the experience, analysed the responses of the various groups, and considered what could be learned about the Bible passages themselves, about those groups of readers/hearers, and about how the Bible engages people in various contexts.
Reading the Bible through others’ eyes
All of us who participated in that process learned new things about the two Bible passages. Most of us were startled to hear from the Fijian group that on reading Jesus’ parable two members were so scandalized and upset by the younger son’s demand for an inheritance before his father had actually died that they wanted to leave the group. The visceral impact of that act of disloyalty and family rupture opened a window onto the possible effect of the story when Jesus told it, sanitized for many of us both by familiarity and by different cultural attitudes.
The experience of feeling less favoured by parents particularly among male siblings evoked in two Chinese women considerable sympathy for the elder brother, again casting into sharper profile the shocking import of Jesus’ parable.
Understanding those we are reading with
At the same time as illuminating aspects of the Bible passages the responses and conversations in the groups gave significant insight into the values, attitudes and experiences of the readers themselves. The nature of family dynamics in different cultures came to the fore, as did differing assumptions about social relationships and hierarchies. Experiences of being far from home and vulnerable resonated with refugees and other migrants.
And what about educated, middle-class New Zealanders? We were confronted with the reality of how remote contemporary New Zealand “non-god-botherers” may be from the cultural understandings assumed in supposedly well-known Bible stories. The celebration on the younger son’s return provoked this perplexed response: “They’re just like, ‘And because you came back we’re gonna kill this animal.’ Like, I don’t know, I just found that really weird.”
Seeing what the Bible does
In reporting back on the groups a common theme was the way that those Bible passages engaged the readers emotionally, connecting with the realities of their own lives and experiences. There were tears, deep hurts and shame were brought into the open, anger was expressed, attitudes and assumptions were exposed and challenged, hope was felt, direction found.
For the students, the immediacy of connection that their groups found with the text was striking. Rather than listening to a series of points of information and suggested application mediated to them by a leader, those readers located themselves directly inside the stories, seeing themselves in its characters, reading and responding as participants as the story unfolded. Readers were interpreting aspects of their own lives within a framework, discerned in the stories, of the purpose and activity of God.
As one student reflected, “Instead of seeing the text objectively and as separate to the readers I now understand that as the text is interpreted, the text and the readers become intertwined in a process of meaning making that cannot be separated from the readers’ lives, experiences, and worldviews.”
In every case the experience of reading and being engaged together by a Bible passage produced relational gains. One group after another reported deepening of understanding of each other, often with mutual support and prayer. Leaders who had thought they already knew groups that they pastored or taught learned new and surprising things and reached a deeper level of relationship.
Learning for ministry and mission
For preachers, teachers and students of the Bible it was not always comfortable to be in the position of listener and facilitator rather than instructor. It could be difficult to hold back from “correcting” interpretations, and steering discussions towards “the main points.” To be fair, there was also some discomfort in the groups themselves if they had expected an authorized person to tell them what was in the Bible and had never been asked to express their own responses to it.
Pressing through that initial discomfort, however, proved immensely worthwhile for the groups and yielded significant learning for ministry.
Listening in as the Bible engages people and evokes responses in the contexts of their realities offers profound insight into their attitudes, assumptions and experiences. When it is appropriate to speak it will be with fuller understanding.
In the very diverse contexts of contemporary ministry and mission, the Bible can be a place of encounter with God and with each other. Engaging together with the Bible, people who are different from each other see the other with fresh understanding, and begin to see themselves through others’ eyes. There is great potential here for relationships within churches that include congregations or groups of different cultures.
The enrichment of understanding of the Bible itself through this process of intercultural Bible reading encourages us to ensure that the preaching and teaching that feeds our congregations is not restricted to one cultural perspective, but that we learn together with the whole body of Christ.
And above all, this project has encouraged fresh confidence that the Bible can and will do its work when it is simply opened and read. It is not only a record of, but also a living and dynamic act of the continuing mission of God.
Story: George Wieland
George Wieland is the Director of Mission Research and Training at Carey Baptist College
1. Have you ever considered starting an intercultural Bible study?
2. What could that look like?
3. Consider the two Bible stories in the research and the responses. How do you respond to those stories? Does it differ to other cultural responses you read of? Does this expand your understanding of Scripture?
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