Mitzi Smith and African American Interpretation (Gupta)

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Confession: there was a time when I scoffed at the idea of cultural-perspective readings of Scripture. It felt faddish and self-serving. It seemed little more than a distraction from “simple exegesis.” I somehow believed that my perspective was objective and pure, while others brought their own values and assumptions to the text.

I have learned a lot since then, and I discovered (!) that I too bring my own cultural lenses to the Bible. I was taught to read Scripture by a certain community and for a certain community. I still try to be careful when I study Scripture that I do not force my own desires upon the text in a self-serving way. But more and more I am aware of my blindspots. And I am more sympathetic to those who cannot help but bring to the reading of Scripture certain passions, sensitivities, and hurts. I am not above that, I am not immune to that, and it can be an asset as much as a liability.

In spring 2018 I am teaching a new course at Portland Seminary called “The Use and Abuse of the Bible.” I will be introducing students to biblical hermeneutics, and part of what I want to do is better understand Latino/a, Asian, and African-American interpretation (hereafter AAI). So, I ordered Mitzi Smith’s new book, Insights from African American Interpretation in the “Reading the Bible in the 21st Century” series from Fortress. To be honest, prior to reading this book I knew little to nothing about AAI. Smith does an outstanding job briefly and plainly introducing it to the uninitiated. AAI recognizes that “the God of the Bible speaks to black people. The Bible and Eurocentric interpretations of it had become a primary means for constructing a rationale for enslaving, oppressing, and excluding black people” (12). The Bible is not for white people; “God’s self-revelation to black people and other people of color reaffirms their full humanity and hermeneutical agency or their right to read the biblical text through the lens or framework of and in dialogue with black people’s humanness, loves, traditions, artifacts, concerns, joys, and struggles, past and present (12).

After the introductory chapter, Smith treats “Twenty-First Century Foundations” where AAI emerged to counteract widespread oppression inside as well as outside of the American church (ch 2). Then she examines developments in the 21st century (ch. 3) where AAI has become an academic discipline with a significant body of scholarship. One of my favorite features of this book is the inclusion of samples of AAI: chapter 4 offers Smith’s study of Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of the Ten Virgins), and chapter 5 is on Judges 19.

What I gained from this book (aside from better understanding AAI in particular, of course) is the poignant reminder that we do not turn off our feelings, experiences, and culture when we read the Bible. If we treat reading Scripture as a kind of free-floating ethereal (“spiritual”) experience cut off from “real life,” it becomes purely an escapist activity and will surely lose its transformative power. I am also reminded how crucial it is to read Scripture with others, hearing their stories and perspectives. This takes patience and empathy, but it continues to prove vital for strengthening my faith and my interpretation of Scripture.

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Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity (Gupta)

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Fortress Press has a nice new(ish) series called Ad Fontes: Early Christian Sources (ed. G. Kalantzis). The purpose of the series is to offer primary source readings on a particular theme with light introductory guidance. Already released volumes include Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Graves), Church and Empire (Doerfler), and Understandings of the Church (Ferguson). The latest volume is Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity by Helen Rhee (Westmont).

The source selections are about 5-10 pages per author/work. Rhee offers a wide range of readings from (for example) The Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, The Acts of Thomas, Lactantius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Rabbula of Edessa. Rhee sometimes gives her own translation, and at other times updates an existing one.

The introduction first gives a broad sketch of earliest Christian thought on wealth before briefly introducing each author/text in the book. She notes that these writers had much to say about the vice of greed and the problem of wealth, and they did not dwell much on the subject of poverty (see p. x). Rhee also adroitly explains the Roman economic system that operated according to the notion of “limited good” – commodities (and other things) existed in finite amounts such that gaining more for oneself was naturally at the expense of another (as it was with status and honor as well). Thus, “the rich or those getting richer were usually seen in a negative light” (xi).

In terms of the readings themselves, I won’t treat them in detail, but just give one observation – there are many wealthy people in the Bible (like Israelite patriarchs and kings), but time and time again these early theologians appeal to the ways and words of Jesus. It is remarkable to me how much Jesus addressed issues of greed and wealth, and showed in his own choices a lifestyle of simplicity and generosity. These theologians were so incredibly familiar with the teachings of Jesus, so they naturally became influenced by his acts and instruction. Would that we too have such knowledge and inspiration!

Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 3 (Gupta)

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2

Chapter 5

Parables After Jesus

The last main chapter focuses on both the 20th and 21st centuries (pp. 207-153). Here Gowler covers 9 people/groups including Thomas Hart Benton, the Blues, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr., Godspell, Latin American interest in the parables, David Flusser, Octavia Butler, and Thich Nhat Hanh. I will mention a few interpreters that were especially interesting to me. I love Flannery O’Connor. Her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, is considered to be inspired by the Parable of the Sower, a harrowing but vivid modern tale. As for Martin Luther King, he preached with passion about the Parable of the Rich man and his storehouses. Also, unsurprisingly, King was inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My favorite musical of all time is Godspell and as a young Christian I learned many of the teachings of Jesus through it. Gowler is no doubt right when he says that Godspell more than any other Jesus film/play/musical “incorporates parables so deeply into its narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings” (232).

Conclusion

Gowler’s conclusion is concise, less than three pages. He simply affirms that we see such creativity and  rainbow of readings of the parables no doubt because they are puzzles and riddles worth pondering extensively. Gowler likens them to art works, inviting the reader into active imagination.

Gupta’s Final Thoughts

Gowler’s The Parables after Jesus is such a fun book to read – the case studies are well-chosen and refreshingly diverse. Gowler balances ancient and modern, East along with West, men and women, academic and art/popular culture. The visuals in the book are helpful and show the impact of the parables even in earliest Christian art. If I have one lingering desire after completing the book, though, it is for more synthesis and guidance from Gowler. I would have enjoyed some commentary on trends and distinctives of certain periods or communities, perhaps briefly at the end of each chapter. In the conclusion, Gowler could have adumbrated how readings have flowed through various watershed moments. These ideas notwithstanding, I warmly recommend this book to all students of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus.