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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on Hermeneutics

I've been in conversation with colleagues at Shaw, with students, and with old and new friends from other schools in recent days about hermeneutics and what matters to our faculty at Shaw University Divinity School.  Now let me say right away that we don't all agree at Shaw.  In fact, we could have some serious disagreements if we tried to nail down a united approach to biblical interpretation.  I reckon that would be true of most theological faculties.  Yet during recent conversations we have been to a great extent on the same page.

Having conversations about the approach to teaching New Testament that we believe is important for our Divinity School, one of the central things we agree upon is that our approach to theological education is rooted and grounded in the acknowledgement of our intentional social location:  we are teaching ministers in the context of the black church.  Perhaps some of you now are thinking, "Tell me something I didn't know."  You are right that it is obvious to anyone who takes a moment to learn about SUDS that our context is the black church.  Ninety-nine per cent of our students are African American, and they are almost all part of historical African American congregations and denominations.  Moreover, nearly all of our faculty are part of African American congregations, where some are pastors and most are ministers.  You may think I am just stating the obvious.

I'm not.

There is more to what I am saying than an observation about whom we associate with.  To say that we teach ministers in the context of the black church is not merely a statement about membership and skin color.  It is not merely a statement about "style," either.  It speaks up about vision, what we see and how we conceptualize.  I am on the verge of opening the floodgates here, but I will try to keep this concise.

I have previously mentioned the term "normative gaze."  This term presents the claim that dominant groups or elites function as the eyes of society.  The facts as they see them, the theories of social existence they hold, the interpretations of texts they favor--all of these become the normative way of seeing things.  Thus, as they gaze out upon the world, their eyes see normatively.  Seeing normatively, they thereby see things as they are.  These groups, having enculturated their majorities or their dominant communities, their ruling classes, and in the modern world, especially, their racial and ethnic majorities, can make claim to recognizing "the plain sense" of Scripture, the "literal" reading.

The normative gaze functions as a kind of blindness, or at least as blinders, to another set of data.  That is the data of minority cultures' counter-readings, counter-histories, and counter-narratives.  The normative gaze may look upon "diversity" and "multiculturalism" as ornamentation upon the normative vision.  It may see minority variations as fascinating boutiques, cultural sightseeing, but not as systemic challenges to the norm.  Of course, modern white supremacy has often categorized minority variations as steps along the way toward whiteness, as immature forms of knowledge, or even digressions from the normative path.  All such characterizations make sure not to question the supremacy of the normative gaze.  Thus, we can call this a kind of blindness.

Our faculty have converged on the conviction that the way of teaching ministers at majority institutions is not universal, general, or normative, but it is oriented toward the white church.  To even say "white church" creates some discomfort, some uneasiness.  It raises defensiveness among some faculty who have understood their approach to theological education to be without the need of an adjective, a modifier, a qualification.  They do not see what they are doing as white biblical interpretation.  I don't know if all my Shaw colleagues would agree with me in this precise statement, but I believe that is what is happening at most seminaries and divinity schools.

Saying that schools are teaching white biblical interpretation is not the same thing as saying those schools work for the Devil or that those professors are on the road to Hell.  I'm not saying that.  I am saying that the tradition of biblical interpretation which grows out of modern European and American scholarship and which operates within a self-referential community of academics and clergy is a narrow and parochial view of the text.  Of course, academics have been eager to call parochial such scholarly productions as black theology, African American biblical interpretation, womanist biblical scholarship, Latin American liberation hermeneutics.  Such work even claims for itself adjective-laden, modified, qualified labels.  I am merely saying that the unlabeled approaches are equally parochial and require modifiers and qualifications.

A second step in this conversation is that we believe that every approach to scholarship must seek out its own critics for the sake of conversation and removal of blinders.  North American Bible readers need to read what African and Latin American Bible readers are saying about the text.  Twentieth-century Bible readers need to read what fourth-century and thirteenth-century and sixteenth-century Bible readers were saying about the texts.  If we admit that much of our reading is captive to our cultural backgrounds, then a critical part of reading critically is to seek out ways that those who love God, serve Christ, and live in the Spirit have understood the Bible in different times and places.  Using various skills, methods, and techniques of interpretation are also valuable, as can be reading contemporary exegetical and expository interpretations of the Bible.  But alone, no technique, skill, or method can do as much as conversing across geographical and cultural boundaries, across centuries and continents.

So if you are wondering how we think about hermeneutics at Shaw, I am pretty confident these are some points on which we agree.  If my colleagues tell me otherwise, I'll let you know.  You know how these academic conversations go.

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