by Hans de Wit, Louis Jonker, Marleen Kool, Daniel Schipani
This hefty book is the product of a three-year study of John 4:1-42 by 120 groups from all parts of the world.
Institute of Mennonite Studies, 3003 Benham Avenue, Elkhart, IN 46517 and The Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 2004, 532 pages, $25.00.
—Reviewed by William Dyrness, professor of theology and culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.
This hefty book is the product of a three-year study of John 4:1-42 by 120 groups from all parts of the world.The idea grew out of a smaller study done at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit and featured a collaboration of groups who studied this passage together. These groups represented lay and clergy, academy and church.However, all studies were oriented toward the ordinary reader (seventy percent of the participants considered themselves poor). The organizers invited partners from around the world to join together in an Intercultural Bible Collective. This group jointly “owned” the project (transcripts from the various locations are available online at www.bible4all.org).
The method was to invite groups of people to (1) study the story of the Samaritan woman together, (2) exchange their hermeneutical report with another cultural group and (3) respond locally to this “new” reading. The book is a five hundred-page report condensed down from almost three thousand pages of text! This includes: images of the actual experience groups had reading Scripture; nine case studies centering on intercultural reading and communication; eleven critical analyses of the hermeneutical process; and five essays drawing out implications. The stated goal was to see what would result from such a global process and to present the results as a “testimony to the fascinating nature of intercultural reading of the Bible” and the ecumenical potential for faith communities.
This ambitious study is part of a growing interest within hermeneutics, which focuses on the “ordinary reader” of the Bible and is pursued as a means to escape the dominance of Euro-centric and overly-academic approaches to scripture. Evangelicals will welcome the emphasis on reading actual texts of scripture together, which reflects on the long-time practice of manuscript study in InterVarsity chapters.
Groups reported a great benefit in listening in on conversations conducted in a wide variety of situations. Commentators saw the process of reading together as helpful in many ways. It (1) facilitated broader communication and understanding (Marleen Kool), (2) provided a place of resistance in the face of the homogenizing and de-territorializing influence of globalization (Mark Rathbone) and (3) counteracted the disabling effects of highly-technical biblical scholarship (Néstor Miguez).
Participants drew three truths from their studies: (1) the world is large, (2) no Bible reading is neutral and most of all (3) it is not easy to see through the eyes of another.
For all of its virtues, however, one puts the book down with a sense that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The voices of the ordinary readers when they are allowed to appear are often insightful, but the attempts to make some global sense of these disparate voices are often unremarkable, even strained. One sympathizes with Gerald West (who co-edited The Bible in Africa, an important reflection on this phenomenon in Africa) when he wonders “what is possible to do with these reports by way of research” (211). His own experience was to use Bible reading for transformation, not for research.
It is undoubtedly true that biblical understanding today involves a multi-sided conversation and this study provides some rich examples of this. But the study also shows that not all conversations are helpful—many attempts to reach out led to puzzlement or resentment rather than illumination (and only half of the groups completed the project). Most of all, the book illustrates, sometimes by accident, that cross-cultural exchange works best when the partners understand something about the other’s context, have some experience of cross-cultural encounter and, most importantly, when the exchange is in the service of some particular purpose—whether it be evangelism or social transformation.
Copyright © 2006 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.