Taking up the risk and hope of Intercultural Bible Reading
by Samantha Lioi, Peace & Justice Minister
Eastern District Conference and Franconia Mennonite Conference encompass many very different groups of people who experience a variety of “borders” in relating with each other and with wider U.S. society. At times some of us are unaware of these borders; at times we talk about them. Some of us live every day with an unavoidable awareness of them. And sometimes we surely avoid talking with each other about topics that might highlight differences.
Could reading the same biblical story and exchanging our questions and understandings across cultural and language lines be transformational in our context? What would it be like to listen to each other and the Spirit around one biblical text for a time? What if we chose a passage of Scripture for small groups across the conference to read? Ideally it would be a narrative that groups would engage as they gathered for Bible study, and these groups would be paired with other groups of believers within our conferences, using online forums to correspond.
Given our relative geographic proximity, we could also visit one another at some point during these exchanges. We would enter into this expecting to hear different understandings of Scripture, to learn to know one another better, to learn who makes up the “we” of Franconia and Eastern District, and to be open to God’s call coming to us from the Scriptures “through the eyes of another.”
Where did this idea come from?
From approximately 2001-2003, ordinary readers, teachers and scholars from five continents participated in the Intercultural Reading of the Bible project, using the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Sponsored by a network of people and institutions who formed the Intercultural Bible Collective, readers ranging from Latino men in a U.S. prison to Dutch Protestants to Colombian Catholics in Bogotá (and many more) formed partner groups and exchanged descriptions of the context of their everyday lives.
They met locally in small groups to study the John 4 text, sent reports of their interpretations to Amsterdam for translating, and received a report from their partner group in another part of the world. Then they read the biblical story a second time, through the eyes of the partner group, and asked themselves: What were similarities and differences? What role did culture play in the reading? Could anything be learned from the partner group? Were there new discoveries in the text on this second reading? Was there a change of perspective? After the second reading, they sent a response to the partner group, usually by letter. Then each group responded to the responses of their partner group, reflected on the process and chose whether to have further contact.
According to Hans de Wit, a leader in this project, “The core question of the project was: What happens when Christians from radically different cultures and situations read the same Bible story and start talking about it with each other? Can intercultural reading of Bible stories result in a new method of reading the Bible and communicating faith that is a catalyst for new, trans-border dialogue and identity formation?”
Those who undertook this project were concerned with the effects of globalization and persistent inequities and were looking for ways to engage Christians in communication which would broaden our awareness of each other’s lives, gifts, and challenges. Not expecting a crystalized, universal meaning of the scripture, they mainly hoped for new perspectives and relationships to emerge.*
Will you join us?
In my early work as Peace and Justice Minister I have begun to test interest in these exchanges and we have a couple of willing pairs that will begin in the fall. I will act as a liaison to check in with Bible Reading groups and to facilitate communication and connection between groups who have agreed to correspond.
Each pairing will have their own online forum to post 1) a description of themselves and their setting, 2) a brief written account of results of their first reading, 3) a response to their partner group’s first reading, 4) the results of a second reading and 5) a response to their partner group’s second reading.
Conference staff will also work with translators to be sure each group can write and receive feedback in their first or preferred language, and to facilitate face-to-face meetings between groups who are developing relationships around the reading of this common text and/or who wish to continue communicating beyond the formal process of the Intercultural Bible Reading project.
Would you like to join us? We welcome multiple small groups from each congregation–existing Bible studies or new groups formed just for this. For more information or to sign up, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This too-brief summary is drawn from the book, Through the Eyes of Another: Intercultural Reading of the Bible, edited by Hans de Wit, Louis Jonker, Marleen Kool, and Daniel Schipani. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2004.