Monday, January 12, 2009

January Course on Biblical Interpretations begins

Greetings again in the new year from Egypt. This week I am beginning to teach a three week course entitled: "Hermeneutical Developments in the 20th Century". Hermeneutics is the way by which we seek to draw out all possible meanings of a Bibical text, by using the methods and insights developed by biblical scholars of different times and different contexts, as well as our own - so that we can apply these truths to our own lives and witness. These movements which came to fruition in the 20th century were by women, Latin Americas Liberation theologians, and biblical scholars in countries which freed themselves from Western colonial rule after World War II (now called the postcolonial hermeneutic).
Let me illustrate some of this by translating the last line of the part of a poem (to the right) about Bishop Oscar Romeo, who was martyred in El Salvador, Central America for standing against the oppression of the ruling junta and siding with the oppressed poor of the land. The last line translates:
(as you accompanied them)
"The poor taught you how to read the Gospel".
As a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century, he would have learned all the traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures which had been developed from the beginnings of the Christian Church, but now in his love and care for his people he came to see the Gospel through their eyes. This transformed his ministry.
The second picture was painted by a Sudanese artist, who is now a refugee in Egypt because of the warfare in his own land. As I purchased it, I asked the merchant why the face of one woman and half the face of another seemed to have been left unpainted. He assured me that it was not because the artist had not finish his work (in his desire for a sale), but that it represented a part of southern Sudanese culture that expresses itself in a dualism, the opposing forces of light and darkness, or what is hidden in shadow and what is visible in the sunlight. I wished that I had had more time to visit with him, and I have been unsuccessful so far in contacting the artist to ask more about this.
But for now, one thing the painting suggested to me is how the different phases of the moon are visible to all in the nighttime sky (as in these faces). Because of how the sun's light is reflected from it to earth we sometimes see a full face (but only one half of the moon), and a half face -in shadow and in light, and a time when all the moon is all in shadow. I have no way of knowing if this was the artit's intention, or if it holds any credence (for I am still an amateur art student). But I think that it is possible to describe how we know others in much the same way, (where parts are in light and parts in shadow) As I start the class, I am going to put a toy parrot on the table in the classroom and ask each student to describe what he or she sees (without moving around to view it from other angles) or asking others. The point of this simple exercise will be that we also experience life from our own vantage point and through our own lenses. We need help from others to expand and enhance our knowledge. (Maybe it is a little like the limits of our knowledge of the moon we had before cameras and people from earth were able to take pictures from the dark side).
In the matter of interpreting the Scriptures, we will be looking into how others help us with the areas (with our limited perspectives and locations) which we may not have yet seen clearly. Often those who received the Scriptures in their own languages for the first time in the great mssionary movements of the 19th century are now (postcolonial hermeneutics) questioning just how much of Western culture and values came along with the Bible, even in the ways it is intended to be interpreted. This is called a "hermeneutics of suspicion". Women were the first to point out that most biblical scholars over the centuries were men, and too often had a decidely male-centered perspective. We will explore what these "new" colleagues from other countries and others cultures, and women, can teach us.
As I write this, the presiding bishop of the ELCA, Dr. Mark Hanson, and many synodical bishops are completing their trip to Jerusalem. If you want to learn more about their reflections, check to see what is written on the ELCA web page ( or your synod's web page. Could help us to understand more of what is happening and what we can do.
Peace, justice and joy, Roger R.

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