Baker Academic

Monday, March 6, 2017

Reading Strategies: Otherness and Empathy

I have been asked to lead a Bible study tomorrow for Presbyterian pastors in Cincinnati. John 3 was among the lectionary options I was given and I happily agreed. Part of my attraction to this chapter relates to my fascination with texts (like John 3:16) that have cultural momentum behind them. Such texts have the power to tell us something about our own biases and affinities. Because to the extent that we employ them, we are prone to distort them. John 3:16 is a great example of a text that modern American Christians have put in service to a particular kind of reductionist theology. Conversely, I was also attracted to John 3 because I am fascinated by texts that alienate our modern sensibilities. John 3:14-15 is such a text. Our cultural repulsion also reveals something about us. Lucky for me, this passage happens to set an alienating text right next to a darling text.
John 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life....
I talk more about how this passage relates to Numbers 21 in this post. Today I'm tinkering with this text in a different way. Preparing for a Bible study, I have found, requires a different sort of reading strategy. I must resist my tendency for historical-critical dissection (although some pastors like this) and a simple devotional reading will be unsatisfactory. Preparing for a Bible study is more like a workshop reading. I get the feeling I once had when I would take a screwdriver to an old radio in my father's garage just to see what's inside. In this case, the hope is to put it back together again.

In the case of John 3:14—the business about serpents as divine judgement, divine salvation, and savior typology—we meet an alienating text (lifelong Bible readers tend not to like literary serpents). But the task of the teacher is almost never to alienate. It is therefore my task to bring an alienating text to life in a way that does not alienate my students.

Here is how I'm thinking about reading strategy today:

Step one: create space wherein the text can be appreciated for its otherness. Notice its capacity to offend our modern sensibilities or confound our familiar theologies. Allow yourself to recognize how removed you are from the time and place of the first audiences of the text. E.g. Who is this God who sends venomous serpents as a consequence for complaining in the wilderness? What function did serpentine imagery play in ancient Egypt relative to Numbers 21? Are the implicit problems created by this zoological image solved by 2 Kings 18:4 (cf. the fate of the Nehushtan)? Is the Johannine Jesus creating more problems than he's solving in John 3:14-15? Does Jesus intend to teach Nicodemus or confuse and shame him? I would suggest that many such questions will allow us to experience the text as "other."

Step two: create space wherein the text can be appreciated as an "other" that requires empathy. If the goal is understanding and we are willing to admit our status as aliens to the text, can we approach the text as a cross-cultural encounter? Why does this particular combination of words make sense to the first composers and audiences? How do we explain the difference between their world and ours in a way that doesn't judge one to be superior to the other? And if we cannot avoid judgement, why not? What is the nature and extend of our cross-cultural encounter? Finally, is there a way to look beyond the offense to discover something more?

I would suggest that (while by no means the only reading strategy) this two-step approach to Bible reading might prepare us for cross-cultural empathy in other encounters as well.


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