What Are You Reading These Days?
My friends often ask me this question.
Mark Allan Powell’s “What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap between Pulpit and Pew” recently caught my attention because I know Powell’s solid biblical scholarship; his title resonates with my own teaching on the meaning of scripture. His book is for those who preach or hear homilies and those who lead or participate in Bible study discussions. Powell’s contention is twofold: first, that one’s social location or life experience influences how one fills in the background for a scripture passage, and, secondly, which character(s) one relates to bears on the meaning derived from a passage.
For the first point, Powell uses the example of the parable of the Prodigal/Lost Son (Luke 15:11-39). The familiar story does not say why this man ended up feeding the pigs; it tells us he squandered his money on a life of “wasteful living.” So Powell asks why the son ended up where he did, using the parable and the question with three different audiences. First, Powell addressed a group of seminarians in the United States who overlooked one detail in the story, the famine. They concentrated on the son’s mistake of wasting his money (v. 13) – a gap-filler undoubtedly influenced by our consumer culture.
When the author spoke with an audience in Russia almost everyone referred to the famine as the reason the son was so impoverished (v. 14). These Russians remembered their own experiences of famine and remarked that most of them would not have had an inheritance to waste. The son’s mistake or sin was leaving the family, wanting to be self-sufficient.
Finally, Powell used this exercise with a group of people in Tanzania. This time most responded that the son was so bad off because no one shared resources with him (v. 16), something their culture mandates. They spoke of the plight of a foreigner in a strange land and the biblical injunction to care for aliens. The son was in a society without honor that contrasted to the father’s house, the kingdom of God – the society was at fault.
Each group used one detail to fill in the gap to conclude why the son ended up tending pigs and each group saw differing mistakes/sins. Who is correct? How do these differing social locations enter into a homily or Bible study discussions? Powell’s exercise adds to finding “meaning” in scripture – what the Bible meant but also how it speaks powerfully today.
From my study, I ask a question of the Visitation story (Luke 1:39-56): “Why did Mary go to visit Elizabeth?” Did Mary journey to help Elizabeth during her pregnancy? Nowhere does it say Mary went “to help out Elizabeth.” There is not even a hint of this; just, she went “with haste.” Later in the gospel, an angel announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds and gives them a sign – the baby in the manger. The shepherds go with haste to see the sign (Luke 2:8-16). Mary travels with haste to see the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy; together they rejoice at the marvels God had done for both of them. Overlooking “with haste” can miss Luke’s clear portrayal of two faith-filled women discussing signs of God’s actions in their lives. Women’s experiences and their words about God are honored by their very placement in scripture. This appropriate “gap-filler” can challenge us today to welcome homilies given by faith-filled women.