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What happens after exegesis? Reading the Bible in the real world

Monday, 10 April 2017  | Siu Fung Wu

It felt a bit strange finishing my PhD and becoming a New Testament scholar at the age of 50. I am a ‘young scholar’ in terms of my research experience. Yet I am about ten to twenty years older than many (though not all) of my peers. I have done many different things in my life. As a child, I was a factory worker in Asia. After university, I worked as an IT professional in Australia for several years. At the age of 30, I started my first theological degree. Within a couple of years I became a pastor in a big church, and was ordained three years later. After that, I went back to IT for a few years while completing my MPhil. Then I worked in the aid and development sector for almost seven years. Soon after that I completed my doctoral thesis. I have been an adjunct lecturer at several theological colleges since 2001, and my first academic book was published in 2015.

I have worked in cramped conditions in a small factory in Asia, and I have enjoyed the comfort of the spacious offices of huge corporations in Australia. I understand the challenge of complex organisational structures in the corporate world, as well as the issues that small churches face. I have experienced the benefits of middle-class income. And I know how it feels to live on a low income, both in Asia and in Australia. While my passion for the Scripture means that I find great pleasure in studying the biblical texts in depth, my diverse life experience has constantly forced me to ask how Bible-loving Christians can follow Jesus in the world today. Or, to put differently, what happens after exegesis?

It is with this question in mind that I will share the following thoughts. I don’t think they are brilliant pieces of advice. Rather, they are simply reflections that I hope will be helpful for pastors and students of theological colleges, especially those who believe that the Scripture plays a vital role in the life and mission of the church. I am also hopeful that the following will be useful for emerging Bible scholars who intend to pursue a vocation in research and teaching. (But I hasten to say that I am not qualified to advise established scholars, given my comparative lack of academic experience.)

First, I want to affirm that serious Bible study is important. I am concerned when preachers play down the role of exegesis and the place of Scripture in the church. Pastors and leaders need solid training in interpreting the biblical text in its literary, cultural, social and historical contexts. There are no shortcuts. We are doing the church a disservice if we cut corners.

Second, we should endeavour to understand the real world. We live in a diverse, globalised, postmodern, pluralistic world. It simply wouldn’t do to have in-depth Bible knowledge and yet understand little about the daily reality that people face, for much of the Scripture deals with real life situations of individuals and communities. No sermon or Bible study is complete without serious and careful reflection on people’s lived experiences.

Third, be careful not to use the Bible - and theology, for that matter - as a tool primarily for apologetics. The life-giving gospel is much bigger than that. Some years ago, I attended a seminar about poverty and faith. The keynote speaker, a well-known scholar, convincingly argued that the church was the most charitable organisation in the ancient world. His message was well received by the audience, which was largely middle-class and educated. But as someone who grew up in a poor area in Asia, where most of my friends lived on a meagre income, I wondered how relevant his message was. If I remember correctly, apart from urging people to give financially, he gave few concrete examples of how Christians might walk with the poor today. His message served to prove that the church cared for the poor throughout history. But he showed limited understanding of the complexity of poverty or its multi-layered causes, let alone the lived experience of the poor. I respect him greatly as a scholar, but on this occasion I think more could have been said.

Fourth, it helps to get involved in social action and missional activities. For example, Michael Gorman, a respected New Testament scholar in the US, provides real examples in his book Becoming the Gospel to demonstrate how church communities participate in God’s mission today. Also, Australian Old Testament scholars Andrew Sloane and Jeanette Mathews were associated with ‘Voices for Justice’, an annual campaign organised by Micah Challenge to advocate for the Millennium Development Goals. For these scholars, the Bible is much more than static abstract theology. The Scripture continues to speak prophetically and plays a vital role in informing missional practice.

Fifth, it pays to step out of our comfort zone to relate to people whose social location is different from ours. Although there are many exceptions, educated Christians in the West who have undergone rigorous theological training are often from middle-class backgrounds. As a result, it is likely that they know little about the reality of life faced by others. Yet about 13.3 per cent of the Australian population, and 17.4 per cent of all children, live below the poverty line (2014 figures - see ACCOSS Poverty in Australia Report 2016). That’s a lot of people! Furthermore, poverty is still a big issue in many non-Western countries, despite significant improvement in recent times. Given the fact that Jesus himself spent a lot of time with the marginalised, and that he came to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18–19), it is important for biblical scholars and theological students to get to know those who live on a low income. Likewise, let us spend time with people living with a disability, befriend those with mental illness and listen to the stories of asylum seekers, for they were the types of people Jesus associated with. Read the Bible together with them, and learn to see things from their perspective. My experience is that the Bible speaks loudly to us when we allow the poor and marginalised to be part of our lives.

Sixth, consider taking time out to work outside the church or become bi-vocational. I know that this is not always possible for a scholar or church pastor, but there are many advantages. Mark Brett, a Hebrew Bible expert, took time off from academic teaching to work as a Policy Officer at Native Title Services Victoria. It gave him the opportunity to walk with Indigenous Australians and understand the practical issues around native title. I was a bi-vocational pastor, and that certainly helped me to keep my feet on the ground. A colleague in IT, who had worked in the banking sector for many years, once told me that a certain modern church building reminded him of a big corporation that was only interested in making profit and nothing else. He was not cynical about the church. His comment came as a result of his professional experience and his quest for integrity in people who claimed to have faith in God. His remark helped me greatly as a pastor, for it showed me that people out there longed for an authentic relationship with God, not institutional religion (in whatever form).

Finally, how do we find time to do the above, given the multiple demands on our time and energy? I can offer no simple answer. But I think prayer and our sincere desire to love our neighbours are the keys. I have come to realise that God can open the way if we earnestly seek him. Some years ago God provided our family with a small office-cleaning job every fortnight to supplement our income. This has turned out to be a good time of reflection for me in the midst of academic teaching and research. I am an introvert, and the very thought of getting to know new people freaks me out. But God led me to a church where I can associate with many socioeconomically disadvantaged people, as well as Christians from many cultures, not least some inspiring Indigenous Australians. Their lives have profoundly enriched my understanding of God. At the same time, God has given me friends who are relatively well-to-do. As I listen to their stories, I learn that life is not a bed of roses, despite their financial stability. Yet they persevere to follow Jesus. God has also given me theological students from different ethnic backgrounds, including many refugees. They have taught me a lot about faith and faithfulness.

I can testify that the Scripture is more real than ever as I open my life to my diverse circle of friends, for what I see in them is also what I find in the Bible. In a real sense, God speaks through the Scripture in the real world. I think everyone can experience this.

Siu Fung Wu was a factory worker, IT professional, pastor and global education officer before he became a New Testament academic. He is the author of Suffering in Romans (2015).

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