A Fresh Approach to Bible Reading
Love Sechrest’s first chapter in her new book, Race & Rhyme: Reading the New Testament, is one of the finest explanations of a liberationist hermeneutic I have read. I cannot do it justice in one newsletter so I will do my best to give some of the biggest ideas.
Here’s a starting quotation:
Thus this book attempts to find places where reflection on intergroup conflict, ethnoracial tension, and power dynamics in the New Testament promotes liberative reflection on race relations in contemporary life.
Tony Thiselton, our world’s most widely-read “hermeneutician,” calls this approach to Bible studies socio-pragmatics (see his New Horizons in Hermeneutics). He’s right but he’s also wrong. If socio-pragmatics points at African American studies, at Latin American studies, at womanist studies, at Asian American studies, etc, but doesn’t point also at traditional exegesis in the historical-critical mode, then it is misunderstood and incomplete.
All exegesis and Bible reading is socio-pragmatic.
There is then such a thing as White American male socio-pragmatics and the only reason there isn’t such a label (for most) is because such an approach is invisible to its practitioners who dominate the scene and thus control the narrative. To be sure, there is such a thing as striving for objectivity to describe what is there in the text, but it’s not as simple as all that. The traditional historical exegetical approach itself reflects the European male tradition that formed systemic hermeneutics today.
Her point would be that all exegesis involves eisegesis.
Most white evangelicals tend to see something similar in particular passages, and what they see is not what others see. That alone should be the sign that white evangelicals have a socio-pragmatic approach at work: they are using the text to find white evangelical beliefs confirmed.
Womanist hermeneutics is a kind of liberationist reading but it is one designed by and for African American women who read the Bible out of and for their own contexts. She names Alice Walker, Katie Cannon, Renita Weems, and Wil Gafney (and others).
Sechrest seeks for liberative texts in the NT but also explores how those same texts at the same time can be oppressive in our way of taking them from the NT world into our world. She wants to create a dialogue between that text and our world in way that there is give and take at both levels and in both directions. That is, we are to interrogate the NT world’s affirmations and limitations and our world’s affirmations and expectations in reading the text.
Sechrest takes the Bible seriously but not literally, which is her term for the problematic dimensions of simplistic retrieval.
She uses the appointment of Greek leaders to take care of neglected Greek widows in Acts 6 as an example. (She also uses 1 Tim 2.)
The appointment of leaders led to growth, and she sees an analogy to affirmative action here. That’s a rhyme. One can appoint minority leaders and find growth (that is, in our day, money). But… One of her points is that if we retrieve texts simplistically we may well be seeking for the qualified leaders to help our church grow, but she then pushes back because that approach lacks sensitivity to various histories impacting those who need to fit that so-called qualification. That lack is a factor not found in the text.
A method that takes conditions on both sides — text and our world — seriously but also interrogates both is required.
So she proposes that in finding good analogies, like Acts 6, where liberative dimensions can be found, we must do more than retrieve. We must examine what she calls “poetic limits” by exploring unexamined assumptions at work in the text, and we must also explore “analogical limits,” that is, unexamined elements in our modern situation that impinge on our reading and our expectations in that text for our context. We ask also if a given analogy does moral or social harm in our world. The poetic limit moves from the text to our world; the analogical limit moves from our world to the text. Both offer constraints and checks on simple rhymes. Why, for instance, should a deacon only be a male just because they were males in Acts 6? The rhyme will adjust as we explore these various elements.
This is theory mostly and she will work this out in many examples in the book – and we will get to those in future newsletters.
Here's gold from Love Sechrest:
we never expect that a given biblical passage alone can address all of the issues in a contemporary moral dilemma, not to mention the fact that we need to appeal to theological, theoretical, and political resources in addition to the Bible.
She turns then to major terms in race relations and how to use them when doing biblical studies, terms like ethnicity and race, and she likes “ethnoracial.” Racialization, racial project, privilege, prejudice, stereotypes, etc..
It appears that the content of the book doesn’t disappoint when fitting it with the title.
I couldn’t help but think of Legos and the way they came back in the ‘60’s vs how the come now: A box with a variety of Lego shapes, sizes, and colors that could be constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, etc. today, you, generally, but a kit for a certain construct. It can be constructed differently, by itself or with other kits, but there will probably be leftover pieces out of the new creation.
Love Sechrest brings the joy and sense of “with God anything is possible when constructing God’s liberating “Tov”!
Thank you, Scot for your post, and Tov!