How does Scripture speak to children and young people in diverse cultures and situations today? More specifically, how does Scripture speak to children in crisis around the world?
Perhaps another way of phrasing that question would be, as Nolan Fewell suggests: “What would it mean to read the Bible for the sake of our children?” The author explains what she means:
I am envisioning a way of reading that allows the subject of “children” to reconfigure what is at stake in the Biblical text. I am proposing an exploration of the text as a space to encounter and to contemplate the experiences and needs of children and of the adults who try to care for them (2003, 24).
The practice of hermeneutics is one that needs to be carefully treaded upon, but one that must be consulted if we are to read the Bible for the sake of our children. On hermeneutics, Robert McAfee argues that we must enter in to the world of the Biblical characters and allow their stories to speak to us as they are. He suggests that what we will hear will be “unexpected” and most likely upsetting (1984, 16). In his book Unexpected News, McAfee carefully rereads Scripture analyzing contemporary contexts in Central America. He chooses the biblical passages “because they are important to third world Christians and because they are familiar to us. The text gives us a common meeting ground to compare different interpretations” (1984, 14).
I am suggesting that it is time we put forth a new set of questions to the Bible, inspired by our work with children and youth. Scientist review old data in a similar way. New instruments reveal new data and for our purposes, new questions reveal new answers (Howard Yoder 1984, 70-71). In part, missiology consists of allowing Scripture to speak into our particular context. Thus as I approach the issue of children and the Bible, I do so out of my encounters and activities with children in primarily Latin America but experiences with vulnerable children in Asia and North America as well.
One of the major problems I have encountered in seeking to understand Scripture from the place of marginalized children and youth is that my questions have been all wrong. If I approach Scripture as a middle-class gringo, forgetting what I have learned from the children I have spent so much time in getting to know inVenezuela and other parts of the world, then I will receive answers to questions that have no relevance for such children.
The Church down through the centuries has tended to see young people in Scripture in adult-like scenarios, failing to recognize their ‘youthfulness.’ To appropriately understand historical figures in Scripture and to rightly understand the text and the immediate message for our context, I would argue that we must have an age and gender based understanding of the text. Instead of glossing over the age and gender of those in the text, we must answer the question, why did God include the sex and age of the individual? And how does that speak to the message? How often have we heard stories of Moses and Joseph without focusing on their age? As we enter into a dialogue with children in Latin America and beyond, an appropriate understanding of the passage, based on gender and age, we will enjoy a new understanding of some familiar passages.
Dialogue is an important communicational process. Dialogue occurs simply when humans speak to one another reflectively and reflexively, desiring to be open to each other and new ideas that will result from such an encounter (Smith 1997, 227). Dialogue for Paulo Freire is a significant aspect to achieving a liberatory pedagogy. Freire argues that “dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants” (1993, 89). Dialogue consists of two humans speaking into each others lives. It also involves a reciprocal communicational process that ultimately achieves new information.
Andrew Kirk encourages people, when, interpreting Scripture, to listen to two voices, the voice of God (Scripture) and the voice (cry) of the people. This process will help us to combine the “universal nature and intention of the Christian’ foundation document with the particular reality of every situation into which the message and life of Christ comes” (2000, 14). Theology is a process that must combine the voices. Another voice that must be included in this dialogue is that of the child. I believe dialogue or rather ‘trialogue’ is an important aspect of reading Scripture with children today. As Freire calls for a dialogical exploration between the student and teacher in his liberatory education theory, so we ought to pursue a ‘trialogical’ experience in our missiological reading of Scripture. This trialogical encounter includes the place of the Bible, Reader and child. Another way of stating this is that we need an integration of three voices— the Biblical passage, the Child and the context. Included in this cooperative encounter is the voice of the Holy Spirit, illuminating the Word to us as we read. The Spirit speaks into our lives as we dialogue between Scripture and the context.
In the “trialogical” process we are seeking a conscientization (consciousness raising) on multiple levels. As the Bible speaks to us and into the context of the at-risk child a certain conscientization takes place. The multiple levels in which this happens are: 1) social realities and 2) spiritual realities, without fragmenting the two in a dualistic way. If we only allow for two of the three, subject to subject (the traditional dialogical approach), we miss a critical aspect of the pedagogical process that should be present in the field of missiology, ending in a limited result that is neither helpful to the child (in our case) or the larger audience that would benefit from the encounter. What does conscientization look like from a missiological perspective? Borrowing from Freire, it must take into account social oppression, but must also engage with spiritual issues that are intrinsically intertwined with social reality.
Perhaps another reality that should ultimately be invited to speak to context is the incarnation. The incarnation should focus our ‘trialogue’ towards a place of real mission in the world today. If we fail to take into account the place of the “Word made flesh” we will loose our focus on God’s mission to the world. David Bosch wrote: “If we are to take the incarnation seriously, the Word has to become flesh in every new context” and “we too must listen to the past and speak to the present and the future” (1991, 21). It is the incarnation of God that steers mission to all children.
The temptation to exert one’s will or agenda in reading the text is dangerous. I have approached the Bible with a purpose to discover how God’s Word speaks to issues faced by children at risk in Latin America. The question is: how might I read the text without forcing a superficial or dishonest interpretation to the stories? Kirk argues that the task of theology is to first understand Scripture in its original context and allowing it to speak for its self. But we must also ask the question, how is this relevant to our situation today? In other words, theology “entails moving from the text’s original sense to its contemporary meaning” (2000, 16-17). The sensus literalis is the meaning that the author originally intended. The second message is the sensus plenior, which is the message that the Holy Spirit helps the Church to understand to each new generation (2000, 17). Yet, how can we do this without misrepresenting God’s intentions?
Chuck Van Engen says, “Clearly, we are trying to avoid bringing our own agendas to, and superimposing them on, Scripture” (1994, 258). I have sought to allow the text to speak to me as it is, and it has. But as I have read I have been reminded of circumstances and experiences I have had with my friends fromLatin America. I have often been surprised by what I have read. This is what McAfree Brown calls “unexpected news” (1984) in reference to the discovery of new insights for contemporary issues. We must be careful not to steal away our own meaning from the text, but rather with integrity ask God, how does this relate to our situation today? This is what we desire from the Word, that it would speak to our own personal lives and that of our community.
Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.
Fewell, Danna Nolan. 2003. The Children of Israel: Reading the Bible for the Sake of our Children. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Freire, Paulo. 1993. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Kirk, Andrew. 2000. What is Mission?Minneapolis: Fortress.
McAfee, Robert. 1984. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes.Philadelphia: TheWestminster Press.
Smith, Susan E. and Dennis G. Willms with Nancy A. Johnson, eds. 1997. Nurtured by Knowledge: Learning to do Participatory Action-Research. New York: The Apex Press.
Van Engen, Charles and Jude Tiersma. 1994. God So Loves the City: Seeking a Theology for Urban Mission. Monrovia: MARC.
Yoder, John Howard. 1984. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. Notre Dame, In: University of Notre Dame Press.