Who Is Listening? Opening new possibilities for the preacher and the listener

By Nancy R. Heisey
Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Eastern Mennonite University and president of Mennonite World Conference

The elderly woman whose husband died three years ago sits near the front, always carrying her Bible with her to the service. It is well worn, and the preacher knows she reads it every day.

The youth group members clustered in the back rows have each received a Bible as a gift from the congregation. They remember some of the stories from childhood Sunday school. Occasionally when facing a hard question, they flip through the text looking for something.

The single mother, who discovered this congregation through other young parents who had befriended her, isn’t sure how to look up the biblical references printed in the bulletin. She wonders at times why the preacher tries so hard to connect her remarks to such an ancient book.
The middle-aged high school teacher who has spent his life in the church can’t stop thinking about the recent article he read discussing new archaeological evidence that contradicts the biblical story he learned as a child. Silently, he asks whether the preacher pays any attention to such information.

Such economic, social, and faith-background diversity in many congregations within the Anabaptist tradition in North America is part of the reality many people now call postmodernity. Perhaps the most helpful way to think about what this term means is to note characteristics of an earlier way of thinking that used to be but is no longer widely shared. The modern view was defined by the understanding that human beings were rational and that society was continually making progress. It was also based on the belief that particular causes led to specific effects. Most people in North American congregations have begun to think of reality as more complex and less mechanical. As biblical scholar Edgar McKnight explains, “Machines are relatively simple mechanical instruments, but conscious beings are very complex and unpredictable. The world we see is like the human beings we are.”

Those responsible to proclaim God’s Word in the congregation thus face a daunting task. On one hand, a preacher has the Bible, an ancient library which reveals high moments of God’s encounter with humanity. On the other hand, he is part of a 21st century community whose world is very distant in time and space from that of biblical characters. As part of the Christian community, he turns to this library as an authority for life, and calls it the Word of God. Upon reflection, however, that expression does not directly describe how God speaks through the Bible. Instead, it is a metaphor. As biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders notes, “metaphor is perhaps our most powerful use of language, our most effective access to the meaning of reality at its deepest levels. . . . (But it) is not translatable into literal meaning.”

While today some preachers and congregations still assume there is no difference between the biblical world and the world they live in, most Westerners have long sensed a gap between their world and the world of the Bible. This has led to the image of interpretation as throwing a bridge across that gap. A postmodern perspective offers a more hopeful way to bring the Bible into conversation with the life of the church.

Those who study the practice of interpretation have described this approach as an experience in three worlds.

First, all people begin to listen or read from where they stand, with their daily lives, varied pasts, and different social and economic situations. Coming to the Bible as they are, they can be helped by thinking about ways this identity shapes what they think.

Second, the Bible, like any book, is more than a ream of paper with printing on it. As anyone who has gotten absorbed in a good book knows, reading can lead readers to forget themselves, as characters, word pictures, themes, or plot take on a life of their own. The world of the text is this wealth found in the written material itself. Bible students have always thought this world mattered, but seldom done so while also consciously reflecting on the world before the text.

Third, the settings where the Bible was written and edited, the social and political realities that affected the people of that time, and the author(s) of the texts have an impact on what it means. McKnight suggests that people who study the Bible envision these different worlds as circles which hang together in an interlocking fashion and form a dynamic unity. To imagine moving through these different worlds, made up of intersecting circles, the idea of a dance may be helpful. As the preacher works with the Bible in the preparation of a sermon, she will step back and forth between circles, sometimes dwelling longer in one or the other, but eventually taking all of them into account. There is not just one place to begin, nor one direction to go. But there is pattern, discipline, and rhythm to the process.

Such an approach to bringing the Scriptures, their authors, and today’s people of God into a lively conversation is not only postmodern. Origen, an early Christian biblical scholar from Egypt, described a similar understanding with a different word picture:
“The whole divinely inspired Scripture may be likened . . . to many locked rooms in one house. By each room is placed a key, but not the one that corresponds to it, so that the keys are scattered about beside the rooms, none of them matching the room by which it is placed. It is a difficult task to find the keys and match them to the rooms that they can open.”

This dance also draws today’s preachers into step with our Anabaptist forebears. The biblical interpreters of the Radical Reformation, suggests McKnight, worked from the conviction that they needed to try, or test, the mainstream biblical interpretations of their time. They did so not to destroy meaning, but rather to attain new understandings that would strengthen faithful lives. Likewise, a preacher’s movement through the three worlds may open new windows of understanding and faithfulness for herself and her hearers.

Nancy Heisey is Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Eastern Mennonite University and current president of Mennonite World Conference. This article is excerpted from her chapter in Anabaptist Preaching: A Conversation Between Pulpit, Pew, and Bible, (Copyright (c) 2003 by Cascadia Publishing House, used by permission), edited by David A. Greiser and Michael A. King, available from Cascadia at www.CascadiaPublishingHouse.com.