Reading the Bible with ‘the other’

Theological Lectureship guest focusses on intercultural Bible reading

April 18, 2017 | Web First
Rich Preheim, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

Mary Magdalene’s Easter discovery of the empty tomb is the greatest news possible for Christians. But for one group of Peruvians studying the account in John 20, it came shrouded in tragedy and terror.

Thousands of people “disappeared” in the 1980s and ’90s, when the country was devastated by armed conflict between government forces and insurgent groups. That left countless families and friends, including the Bible study group, echoing Mary’s question: “Where have they taken our loved one?”

“Before we could think about the text rationally, we felt the pain and brokenness behind the text,” said Dutch scholar Hans de Wit, one of the Bible study’s organizers and this year’s Theological Lectureship presenter at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).

The Peruvians were participants in an international project on intercultural reading of the Bible, which de Wit helped pioneer.

Now professor emeritus of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, de Wit gave three lectures at AMBS on the importance of all people joining in biblical discernment. It’s a process that can turn the printed word into “sacred Scripture,” he said, encouraging his listeners to consider “a hermeneutic of hospitality and dependence.”

A native of the Netherlands, de Wit became interested in how culture affects biblical understanding while serving in Chile as a Reformed mission worker from 1980 to 1989, when dictator Augusto Pinochet brutally ruled the country. During that time, de Wit said he began to wonder if victims and oppressors could read the Bible together.

At the Free University of Amsterdam after his return, he pursued his growing interest in intercultural reading of the Bible. In 2000, he and three colleagues organized an unprecedented initiative involving some 120 groups in 21 countries across five continents. The groups, made up of “ordinary” readers, Bible teachers, pastors and scholars from a range of religious traditions and socio-economic contexts, all studied the account of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

The findings from the project were compiled in 2005 in a book, Through the Eyes of Another: Intercultural Reading of the Bible, published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies at AMBS and the Free University of Amsterdam.

De Wit has directed a number of other such projects. His current intercultural Bible reading initiative links 20 indigenous groups throughout Latin America. He said marginalized people often read the Bible “as a letter addressed to them.” One project centred on Amnon’s rape of Tamar, his half-sister, as found in II Samuel 13. A reading group of drug addicts in Amsterdam strongly identified with the woman, declaring, “We are all Tamar.” They were all too familiar with the story’s account of abuse, violence and familial dysfunction. “They read the text in the present,” de Wit said. “They saw the evil of the offenders, and they identified with the victim.”

White, middle-class and educated western readers, meanwhile, are prone to read the Bible “as a relic of the past” and often cannot personally identify with its stories. Incorporating the insights of oppressed Peruvians, Dutch addicts and other groups not only complements prevailing western understandings but offers a corrective, according to de Wit.

“We think we’re the only ones entitled to validate this or that,” he said, noting that expanding the number of participants and perspectives can be threatening to those who have long dominated biblical interpretation, such as western scholars. “Power and reading are intimately connected,” he said. “And power doesn’t like to be dismantled.”

But the process of extending hospitality to other understandings, de Wit said, can turn Scripture into an agent of reconciliation. It can be a weapon against xenophobia. “There will be no reconciliation if there is no interaction,” he said.

“No one is the owner of biblical revelation,” according to de Wit. “The Bible is a book for all of us.”

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