Eisegesis, Emergence Christianity

Eisegesis and Emergence

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.)

9 thoughts on “Eisegesis and Emergence”

  1. "Liberal Christians were out there doing the work of feeding and clothing and visiting long before Emergence Christianity appeared."Boom. Agree completely. I've been working on my own post about this.

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  2. responding to "Progressives are hung up on the intellectual approach." I guess that might be one Emergent person's way of looking at someone struggling with the texts. I believe that we are supposed to struggle with the texts…that's how I read Jacob's struggle with the angel in Gen. 32.And when faced with those who believe there is something I must "do" to be "saved"…all I can think of are the Pharisees in the gospels. They were so sure that they had it right…they thought they knew exactly how to apply the law. And then came Jesus.

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  3. Emergents (even those of Tickle's age) remind me of teens discovering sex. They believe they are the first ones who have ever thought of/experienced it. Reading McLaren's theological revelations which are things I've known/believed all my life. Apothetic is simply the via negativa. Inspiration (the movement of the Spirit) it seems to me has always been a part of the Reformed tradition. Perhaps not for academics, but for preachers. Yes, I wish they would wave to us.

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  4. I suspect Emergent Christianity's disregard for Progressive/Liberal Christian intellectual traditions is more the product of a generational ethos of pop-culture-inculcated cynicism than anything else. Such cynicism was incredibly (pun intended) fashionable among my high school peers in the mid-1980s and seems to have surged much higher among people in their 20s and 30s. (Note: this is based primarily on my own observations and I would love to be proven wrong!)This situation presents a profound challenge for clergyfolk ministering to up-and-coming generations: how can we provide both powerful personal witness and appropriate tools and methods for the deep intellectual engagement and spiritual awareness a living faith demands? How can we do so in ways that enable the 40-and-under folks to move beyond Mark C. Miller's famed "hipness unto death," i.e. cynicism and its close relations dismissiveness, apathy and despair?

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  5. Hmm, this has me thinking. As a member of a sometimes insular wing of the mainline (Lutheranism), I have often appreciated Tickle's and others' Emergent challenges, especially when it comes to our views of "good order." But it seems to me that her views here are just another iteration of good old Protestant anti-intellectualism. We need *more,* not less, engagement with heart and mind together, in the manner of midrashim.Coming off of a lovely celebration of the Trinity, I am wont to extol the gifts of the Spirit. But let's face it, as humans we are not always good at testing the spirits to see whether they are from God.

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  6. I'm a liberal. I read books by people like Marcus Borg, who wrote about the "emerging paradigm" and the "earlier paradigm" in his book The Heart of Christianity. According to Borg, the earlier paradigm is centered on belief, while the emerging paradigm revolves around the need for transforming self and society. Here's what I wrote about it:http://bonniesbooks.blogspot.com/2009/08/heart-of-christianity-by-marcus-j-borg.htmlI looked up "apophatic" at Dictionary.com and found that it's an adjective from the Greek apophatikos, with this definition: "pertaining to a knowledge of God obtained through negation."

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  7. I agree with The Simpleton. As a Jew-by-choice, raised in a non-denominational Christian tradition, perhaps I shouldn't even comment, but then again, I have seen and experienced a lot of "preaching" all told. What I have found the most moving is an approach that combines the powers of head/text/heart/spirit. When I am moved by a preacher/rabbi/student's personal experience that can then be shown to be in common with people throughout millenia (look, even the ancient texts wrestled with this!) the problem and its angles seems even more profound. And the continued connection between holy texts and everyday life seems to me to be only enriched by the more people who are studying and thinking about it.Don't know if this makes any sense as I am a little out of my liturgical depth here….But wherever this viewpoint lands me, I am waving a friendly hello from there!:) Neighbor Lady

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  8. I meant to write that I agree with The Simpleton about this comment: "We need *more,* not less, engagement with heart and mind together"Forgot to go back and pull the quote before posting…..:) Neighbor Lady

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