It appeared on my phone mysteriously. The touch screen has a mind of its own, making pocket calls and opening apps at will. I pulled it out and there was the dictionary, declaring the word for the day: eisegesis, “an interpretation that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text.” It’s a dirty word for preachers. We are supposed to do exegesis, mining the text for its actual meaning, whatever that means. I’m from the liberal wing of the church, or rather my education is, and that means I’ve been trained in the historical-critical method. I know how to look things up and seek other people’s scholarly opinions about word usage and social context. Those things are helpful, sometimes, when the text doesn’t sing its own song to me.
And I wonder if some would accuse me of eisegesis, because I don’t rigorously exegete most of the time.
I read something the other day by Phyllis Tickle about the difference between Emerging Christians and Progressive Christians, and she made the argument that Progressives are hung up on the intellectual approach while Emergence types are more apophatic, which is not even a word listed on the Dictionary app on my iPhone. She writes with regard to the interpretation of scripture, “The Progressive stance, once again, is far more intellectualized than is that of Emergence. Born in a time of burgeoning Pentecostalism, Emergence Christianity and Emergence Christians are naturally inclined—increasingly so, in fact—toward the approach of communal discernment and direct appeal to the Holy Spirit for explication and direction. Such a stance allows Emergence to be more or less innocent of biblical literalism and far more inclined toward a kind of apophatic or Orthodox actualism.”
I have no idea if Emergent folk are actually innocent of Biblical literalism, and I think it’s dangerous to dismiss historical-critical and other intellectual approaches to scripture as elitist, which seems to be among the points of Tickle’s comparison. We’re up in our brainiac ivory towers doing social justice as an us-them act while Emergence Christianity is into doing things together and listening for God, she seems to be saying. But I believe the root of liberal social justice theology is care for others based on the Great Commandment and its Ethic of Love as proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Liberal Christians were out there doing the work of feeding and clothing and visiting long before Emergence Christianity appeared. I think there’s a bit of a baby-bathwater problem here that makes using your head sound like a sin. Why are liberals/progressives so despised? Tickle says the Emergence Christians look at them as living in gated communities and acting from enlightened self-interest.
Really? I wish they could have known my grandmother, widowed at 39 and never with much more than two nickels to rub together. Her faithful life as a Methodist lay person included pioneering social ministry in a Southern city where her views set her against those of most white people. She lived in rented houses and apartments with her extended family all her life. She ran the first day care center in my home city, served on the board of Planned Parenthood and chaired the School Board that integrated the schools. She did all this because of Jesus, and way before any kind of Emergence, well, emerged. You do these things for people because Jesus said to do them. That was the message I got from my grandmother. It couldn’t have been clearer, and it had nothing to do with being elite. If you had anything, any gift or talent, you needed to be using it to make the world a better place on behalf of Jesus Christ. And while she put her Methodist self out there, the Evangelical grandparents of Emergence Christianity sat in their churches and worried about what would happen if black and white children went to school together.
So I’m not buying the argument that all mainline liberals are merely intellectual and self-serving.
I am interested in the idea of direct appeal, because despite my classic liberal theological education, I’m doing a lot more scripture interpretation by inspiration than by scholarship these days. I sometimes wonder if I’m too light on the book study, though my method seems to be working for me and for the congregation I serve. I live with the texts, and I respond to the movement of the Spirit when it comes time to write and preach. That sounds more like Tickle’s description of Emergence, and I’m willing to see and acknowledge the value of moving out in that direction.
I only wish the people on the other side of the apparent abyss could look over to my side and see something valuable, too. Or at least wave, since we all love Jesus.
(And if I’m guilty here of hyper-reactive eisegesis, prod me on it, and I will reconsider.)