We Protestants teach everyone this: You must read the Bible for yourself. Of course, we don’t want those “you”s to get too clever and start saying things that aren’t there, but there is a lot in this teaching we hold so dear. And that is why everyone who reads and teaches the Bible needs to read Mark Allan Powell’s What Do They Hear? I think this book is solid gold.
Why? Because Mark seriously asks what it is like for preachers to address an audience and know (1) that what they “hear” is not always what the preacher “said” and (2) that what Christians “read” is shaped by their “social location.” This book is HermeneuticsLite in the best and every sense of the word. Wait until you see what Mark has discovered because it reveals plenty about you and me.
Before we get too far, let me ask you this: When you have read the Parable of the Prodigal Son did you hear the part about the famine? Does it matter to how you read the Parable? Is the younger son “wicked” or “foolish”? Was he personally saved or was he drawn back to his family? How do you hear the gospel? It is not that one must make a choice between these options — it is only that we do.
Big one: I need your help. What can each of us do to expand our “seeings” and our “hearings” and our “readings” of the Bible? No one should deny us the right to hear what we hear; no one should claim that hearing to be the only hearing until one has listened to all the hearings. (I’m not going pluralist here, either; I’m not suggesting “your reading is as good as my reading because mine is mine and yours is yours.”) I’m suggesting that we need to realize we have readings, that our readings are shaped by our social location, and that is desirable to hear the readings of other social locations. And, what can we do to get more readings? To hear how others are hearing?
He tells the story of his mom saying she liked one of Mark’s song when he was in high school, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Mark is an expert on music (and I’ve heard of this group but not listened to them that I know of). She heard “There’s a bathroom on the right!” when they were singing “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” The focus of the 1st chp is on this very thing: People hear things we don’t intend because they absorb what we say into their social location. And, he admits, “We want to be taken out of context — but only when that is a good thing.”
Chp 2 is delightful. Mark examines how some of his American students, how some of his Russian students, and how some of his Tanzanian students all hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Here’s a result:
Americans 100% of them heard the part about the son squandering his money.
Americans 6% observed that there was a famine.
Russians 34% mentioned the squandering while 84% heard the part about the famine.
Eastern commentaries on the parable focus on the son’s being enamored with luxury and splendor, that the boy wasted his money living luxuriously, that he pursued a life of entertainment and amusement, and that he was trouble-free. Western commentaries say he wasted his money on sexual misconduct, he went the whole route in sinful indulgence, he wasted his money on wine,women and song, and he went abroad to live a sinful life. Westerners see the point in reform; Russians see it in recovery. Americans see moral waste; Russians see opulence.
His Tanzanian students saw a major issue in the lack of help that the foreigners gave (the help they did not give) to the “immigrant” and they saw the father’s house as the kingdom where the young man was taken care of. The parable contrasts the far country and the father’s house; it contrasts a kingdom with a non-kingdom society.
I can’t wait for the next chapter.