The church is at its best when it can easily see itself reflected in the stories of the scriptures, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes the things that we face are alien enough to the scriptures that we struggle to perceive what it means for us to fulfill their calling. They were, after all, given to the church first of all in their own day, and were primarily meant to help those disciples find and follow the way of Jesus through their own world, which sometimes looks like ours, but not always. The witness they bear to the values and truths that could help those disciples are still critically important today, but we just have a bit of discerning to do if we’re going to be able to fruitfully unpack them. There still is a way of Jesus in our world, and it still anticipates the same climatic end as it did in the first century. However, the world has shifted itself around around us, and that leaves us with some work to do if we’re to fruitfully respond to the scriptures, or at least not become distorted by naive readings of them.
For example, take the church’s relative power position in its culture. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. The early church was faced with either apathy or antagonism from the dominant powers of its culture, seen as a fringe group with little clout. The writings of the N.T. give counsel and encouragement from the standpoint of that perspective, and here’s the rub—interpreting those text from a different perspective requires discernment.
For instance, one of the things required for that minority church to gain a hearing in the world that saw them as irrelevant or dangerous was boldness, and the texts encourage that in a variety of ways, from the narrative depiction of the bold apostles in Acts 4 to Jesus’s polemic (a form of antagonistic teaching about opponents) in Matthew 10, or in Paul’s letters (Phil 1:14). For a marginalized, unknown people, boldness is a critical trait. However, without care that same spirit of boldness in an empowered people who make up the majority of the culture can easily turn coercive, becoming oppressive and condescending.
The big catch is that this sort of perspective change happens very gradually, and we don’t generally realize we need to shift the way we read the texts sometimes until it’s decades—or even centuries—overdue. We don’t leap into power or out of it, we drift into and out of power—at least culturally, although the formal structures of power can change hands more quickly and make the change feel sudden. Because the change is gradual, we don’t realize that our former modes of interpretation have lost their appropriateness, and continue to use them far past their fruitfulness. You read the story from the perspective of the Israelites, and keep doing so long after you’ve transformed into Pharaoh. You read the story from Israel's perspective, and do so long after you transform into Pharaoh. Click To Tweet
That’s why reading scripture fruitfully requires not only diligence (careful and persistent work or effort), but vigilance (careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.) It’s important not just to keep an eye out for those ways that our own perspective, and the subtle changes of our posture in the world, can distort the way we read the text. Occasionally, that can lead us further away from the way of Jesus, rather than further along it. Vigilance leads us to notice and recognize ourselves in new and different ways in the text, this allows us to hear the Spirit’s call to repentance and continual conversion. Paying attention to not only our own context when we read the text, but our position and posture within our cultural context, thus allows the word to have not only a static message for us, but one that is dynamic and alive, always calling us forward.
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