In October 2019 I attended and participated in the 2019 Equip Study Conference for the Mennonite Brethren in Canada. As I engaged with the speakers I had two trains of thoughts that arose. This is the first one. Feel free to leave comments and responses below.
As I drive through a residential neighbourhood, I see a sign of a child running and bouncing a ball. A sign that reminds us, “Caution. Children at Play.” A reminder to slow down, pay attention and not lose focus. Living in the prairies of Canada we have similar signs that say “Caution. People at Work.” A warning that serious work is being done and we need to be careful.
As we engage with scripture perhaps, we need a similar sign – one that says “Caution. Hermeneutics at work.” Hermeneutics being the way we interpret scripture; this could be valuable. Such a sign of course could have several meanings. Perhaps the sign means people are doing hermeneutics and we should be cautious to get our hermeneutics right and not lose focus. Or maybe it means, caution our hermeneutics help us encounter the living God and it is not for the feint of heart. Or perhaps it is a warning that hermeneutics is best left more for the professionals and the rest of us should be cautious to not tread into a field we are ill equipped for less our faith get hurt.
Which sign should it be? Perhaps all of them based on how we do hermeneutics. Certainly, we should be cautious in how we engage with scripture. Definitely if we read scripture well and with open hearts scripture is a dangerous tool that can usurp our life and be used by the Holy Spirit to transform us. Unfortunately, the last one is also correct – we can make hermeneutics such a big topic that everyday believers in Christ are pushed to the sidelines and the academics and professionals are left to make decisions and have discussions while we observe.
One of the challenges the church has faced has been the professionalization of faith. While we’ve always had church leaders -elders, teachers, even pastors – the role of these have changed. Our culture is one that expects professionals to be involved. In secular life our children’s play has switched to programs and activities and teams leaving out the imagination, free play, and neighborhood wandering ways of childhoods past. Counselling sessions has replaced coffee with a neighbor to talk through challenges in life. We hire personal trainers to tell us how to exercise. Corporations hire experts to consult. We are a society where specialization and professionalization are valued.
The church has also bought into the culture of needing professionals. In a culture with access to the best preachers, the best study materials, and the best worship music we’ve come to expect that same level of quality that is fabricated by the experts for online distribution in our everyday in the church. Our parishioners can pick and choose what they want to learn and from whom they can hear it. Even at the local level the church has taken over that which the home used to ber responsible for. Bible study is a church activity not a family activity. Christian education is left to Sunday school. Is there value in this? Absolutely. Have we lost something? Definitely.
Hermeneutics is also something that has fallen to the professionalization of faith. Something akin to the construction sign warning us that professionals are busy at work while the rest of us wait for clear answers. At the least hermeneutics is the work of pastors and key lay people, while the heavy lifting is done by academics and authors. This is not a negative to have these voices at work. We benefit greatly from the work all these people do. I would even go so far as to say we need these voices. We want these voices.
So what’s the issue?
There are other voices missing. Scripture makes it clear that the least important parts of the body of Christ may just be the most important, and the most important the least. What if that applies to hermeneutics. What if we are emulating the disciples and keeping the ‘least of these’ away from Christ, or at least away from hermeneutics. What if the sign we need for hermeneutics is not a construction sign but rather ‘Caution. Hermeneutics. Children at Play.”
Children… and hermeneutics? Why would those two mix? Most children probably can’t even say the word! I would contend though that children and hermeneutics already do mix. If you want to identify someone’s hermeneutic evaluate how they would teach it to a child. After all, we are called to have faith like children. You might be wondering how in the world do we begin to teach contextualization, genre, and other such topics to children. Perhaps you may be shocked to realize we already do. Every time we teach a scriptural lesson to a child, we are teaching the value of these things and the role they play.
We can have all sorts of discussions about how to read scripture and interpret it. We can talk about how to apply it even. Yet our true hermeneutic will be revealed in how we teach scripture at the most basic level. How we teach children scripture will say far more about how we interpret and read the Bible than any discussion that is in the abstract and purely academic. What is the saying… “The proof is in the pudding?” The original saying was actually that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It’s a clear reminder that the end result is the mark of our success or our failure.
If the goal of academics in the church is to wrestle with topics and have the results trickle down throughout the whole body of Christ, then the fruit of that will finally be revealed in the children of the church. How we teach and what we teach children will reveal our hermeneutics.
One example of this would be teaching creation. There are a variety of themes from hermeneutics we can apply to this text. I was the victim of one of these. I was taught very clearly that creation had seven days and that on the seventh day God rested. I was also taught that creation was perfect, which as I grew older was revised to creation being ‘good’. Finally, I was taught that humans sinned and made a mess of everything. That reflects a hermeneutic the church as about creation.
How would I teach creation now? Having done nine years of children’s ministry this is not just theoretical but a very real question. Ultimately I would want to teach that creation is a story that God wants us to know and is important. That God created with intention and purpose and value. That God created humanity for a special purpose and a special relationship with God. I would then teach that humans made a very selfish choice like so many of us do and that sin entered the picture. I would want to communicate that we have marred (yes I would find a better word!) God’s creation with sin but God showed that He still loved and valued us, but our sin kept us from getting close to God. There is probably much more I would want to teach. Do you notice I don’t really talk about creation or evolution? By avoiding that topic for as long as I can I am able to steer the focus to where my hermeneutic says it should be. Or do believe that Genesis 1 is in fact a scientific text – a unique chapter that way in terms of genre in scripture? Will that conversation come eventually? Yes, but I hope that what has been taught already will frame that discussion to the purpose of the text. Does that make me an evolutionist that I’m not teaching a literal seven-day creation? No. It makes me a child of God learning about my relationship with God not someone playing with a theological chemistry set trying to be a scientist.
Hermeneutics shape how we teach the least of these. If we cannot reduce our hermeneutics to be practical and applicable in how we teach children, how we teach people new to faith, or even how we disciple maturing believers we have failed. IS that it then? Let’s make hermeneutics practical and teachable? Wouldn’t that be nice? Yet I fear that would be more akin to the pharisees repackaging their teaching to be more marketable. Is it important? Absolutely. What the pharisees taught was in fact important was it not? Was the issue not actually how they lived it out? Was not the issue what their heart was on the matter? So not only do we need to make our teaching practical and applicable for all ages and all people, I suspect we also need to change our heart regarding what hermeneutics is.
Let’s revisit our sign of “Caution. Hermeneutics. Children at Play.” What if we drop the word “Caution.” Caution means slow down. Pay attention for what others are doing. If we drop the word caution the sign changes. It becomes “Hermeneutics. Children at play”. What if that sign isn’t a warning but an invitation? Jesus not only invited the children to come to him, he called on all of us to have faith like a child. What if ‘faith like a child’ is our Rosetta stone to biblical hermeneutics? What if ‘faith like a child’ is an invitation to encounter scripture through the eyes and ears of children and learn from them. What if at the foundation of all our hermeneutics we need to engage scripture with the faith of a child.
What if we approach scripture like a child does? What if in reading the parables we approach them with wonder, imagination and curiosity? What if instead of just reading the Psalms we were to sing them? These are just two examples but neither thought is revolutionary. Brian Doerksen, a Canadian worship artist has started a group called the Shier Poets who are putting hymns back to music. Imagine if we started singing the Psalms of Ascent on our way to worship? Or what if we approached the parable of a lost sheep with wonder and amazement as Jerome Berryman and Sonya Stewart envision with “Godly Play” and “Young Children and Worship”?
I would suggest all the academics and wrestling with hermeneutics is wonderful and valuable. However, if it does not approach scripture with faith like a child then it will always miss something valuable and foundational to our understanding of scripture. Perhaps more of our hermeneuticians need to participate in children’s ministry so they see scripture through the eyes of a child and can emulate that faith.
I’d like to suggest the sign “hermeneutics: children playing” is not calling us to watch children playing or watch out for them. It’s an invitation to pull over, get out of our car and play. To play with scripture, to play with faith, and to approach both scripture and this wonderful world God has given us with amazement, wonder, imagination and curiosity. Then we find the foundation of our hermeneutics and all out talks on genre, on recontextualization, on historical understanding takes a new shape that is truly rooted in faith – faith like a child. Then we find children, everyday believers, pastors, academics. – we together can work on our reading of scripture and delight in what God says to us as we encounter the one true Living God.