By Joe LaGuardia
A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.
I attended a pastor’s Bible study recently and did not learn anything new. If you are going to bring pastors together, then have something new up your sleeve: a new insight into reading the text, an esoteric resource that garners a cutting-edge interpretation of scripture, a new twist on an old tale. But don’t spout lessons we have likely taught for years in Sunday school.
One of the greatest compliments I get as a preacher is not that a sermon was interesting or exciting, but that something new was learned. “I never heard that before,” or “I’ve never read the passage like that,” is music to my ears. It is impossible to hit a sermon out of the park every Sunday morning, but not to have at least one thing unique to each sermon–a new reading, an insight that is not cliché, a way to enliven the imagination.
I came into seminary with a formidable religion degree from college. Classes were basic, therefore, and getting at something new was difficult. But when I got into a New Testament course with a professor by the name of Dr. Carson, I got hooked on his methodology of reading the text. I’ve never read the Bible that way!
Dr. Carson was from Union Theological Seminary and Southern Seminary, so he was able to bring a reading from two very different points-of-view. As a way of protest, he threw out many tried and true historical-critical interpretations of scripture because of faulty foundations of reading, and relied on the purity of reading a text for what it says and how it is said, not from a translation.
Dr. Carson emphasized socio-rhetorical criticism, which was new to me. Socio-rhetorical criticism explores how authors write what they write, why they write, how they write, and what they exclude. The critic reads the Bible, noting that the order, shape, and context of the original language says something about the intent of the writing.
Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion,” and it asks questions of persuasion in the text. Socio-historical criticism looks at the world of the text and how culture shapes literature, speech, and language. It is a fairly recent criticism, only some forty years old.
This was a life-giving methodology for me. I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Carson after that first course, and his recommendations went to the top of my reading list. He recommended Vernon Robbins’ The Texture of Texts; socio-historical criticism by the likes of Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and others from the “the Context Group”; and a pithy book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, by Columbia University professor Kathy Eden.
Since I love words and writing, a focus on the function and dynamics of rhetoric opened a new world of joy and wonder. It added depth to the biblical story, and it provided applications that made sense and applied to real life. It brought Jesus to life, too, and painted a picture in both testaments that sit squarely in a mysterious culture foreign — and yet similar — to our own.
As a Baptist, I like how that type of reading pushed against the powers of interpretation and the privileges of the academy. It exposed assumptions of historical biblical criticism and up-ended mistaken interpretations–often perpetuated by those in power and the academic establishment–that failed to take the ancient world seriously. It also has a global leaning, allowing other voices to shape how the text–and the persuasion and arguments therein–apply to a variety of cultures in our own day and age.
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carson because he opened a new window of biblical exploration, and that interpretation plays heavily on my preaching and teaching. If you ever visit my church there’s a good chance that you may not always agree with the content, but you will learn something new.