Friday, January 27, 2012

Contextual Bible Study

This is a rant, I suppose. I'm writing just for me. This week I listened to the third presentation on the method of Contextual Bible Study that I have heard in two years. It was actually the fourth altogether because one of my courses for my BTh at the Baptist Theological College was on Contextual Bible Study. Every presentation was very good - partly, I suspect, because they were using material created by Gerald West the originator of CBS, although I may be wrong. (My degree course was explicitly based on a book written by him and prescribed for the course, which unfortunately I couldn't afford at the time and so used a library copy.)
But the thing is that two out of the last three presentations used the method to promote a sort of intellectual dishonesty that really irritates me. CBS suggests reading Bible passages in an indigenous way - what does it really say if you don't assume pre-packaged theological and spiritualised understandings. If you just read the passage, what does it actually say? This is cool because it raises good questions. From Matthew 20: Why were the workers hired for the vineyard standing in the marketplace? Does this passage have anything to say about a living wage and unfair labour practice? And so on.
But two of the last three facilitators took the next step of appropriating the passage to support other presupposed ideological conclusions - so now we don't use pre-exisiting theological or spiritualised understandings, but we have a new ideological understanding that is right simply because the other must be wrong.
So does the passage speak about unfair labour practice? Yes, they say. But what does it say? And here the intellectual dishonesty comes in because they don't know and so they just tag ideology on to it. The scripture raises the question, but it is not clear where the answer is coming from.
This belittles CBS - I am quite sure that Gerald West himself (knowing him) would give a fascinating interpretation of the passage and I am equally certain that it would be absolutely intellectually honest. Perhaps I am being too demanding of these facilitators, perhaps I am missing something - but I think even simple readers are entitled to consistency and straightforward thinking.
And as they would like to hear, the facilitators are entitled to their own understanding of Scripture!


Macrina Walker said...

Jenny, I think that you touch on a real issue that needs to be exposed and challenged, although doing so is not so simple - at least in my experience - because the pressure not to do so is often quite subtle - especially if one doesn't want to end up sounding like a reactionary fundamentalist!

The truth of the matter is that we all read Scripture with certain presuppositions - I'm sorry if I offend, but the whole sola scriptura idea is a total myth. And anyone with a little imagination can make it say whatever they want it to.

The question, though, is what presuppositions we read it with. To suggest that there is something amiss with theological and spiritualised understandings seems totally absurd to me. But the question is what theology and whose understandings. Saint Irenaeus argued that what the Gnostics were doing by taking bits and pieces from Scripture and arranging them in such a way as to come up with heresy, was like taking pieces of a mosaic and rearranging them so that instead of an image of a king one has the image of a fox. The key issue for him was the pattern or the plot that holds together what is presented in Scripture. And that inevitably comes from theology - although not simply cerebral theology, but what is passed on in the rule of prayer and the faith of the Church. If one discounts this, then one inevitably finds some other pattern and ends up in the realm of heresy or ideology or both.

So the issue for me is not whether to have a theological understanding, but where to find the theological understanding that is true to Scriptures own reading of itself, and to its reception in the early Church.

I thought of speculating on what Gerald West would react based on some of his earlier writings (I don't know what he's written in recent years) which would I suspect get into the issue of authority, but this comment is probably more than long enough!

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Macrina
Yes I agree with you - and I think that is where a lot of discussion is happening. But also lots of people think it's cool to be radical just for the sake of being radical. Reading 'across the grain' of scripture is a useful tool, but does not define truth. Ultimately I believe (and I know others disagree) that God is the custodian and giver of meaning and that the Bible is opened to sincere readers.
Thanks for your thoughts - I wish I could add to them more meaningfully!