An Invitation to Conversation
What are the marks of a good conversation? The ability to listen well? A capacity to speak clearly? Thoughtfulness? The search for mutual understanding and illumination? What sort of character is required for fruitful conversation? Patience, honesty, prudence, temperance, goodness, trustworthiness, perhaps even courage and a commitment to values like justice and equity? New Testament study is an invitation to a conversation that implies all of these skills and virtues and several more.
There are many different kinds of conversations. We can chat about the weather or tell someone we love them. There is much more at stake with love than the weather! Similarly, New Testament study is conversation that can take many forms and degrees of earnestness. At times, reading and listening and responding to the New Testament is an act of devotion, used in prayer and worship. At other times, it is important to study the New Testament in an academic setting, treating it like any other historical document. This sometimes even includes taking a critical look at some of the assumptions we might find under the surface, uncovering incentives to violence and oppression, for example.
Theological conversation with the Bible has a distinctive set of features. At heart, at least for Christians, theological conversation is guided by the idea that through the words of the New Testament God has and continues to reveal who God is for us: his people, her whole creation. Looking to the Bible for God’s revelation is like going to a famous restaurant known for its outstanding food: there is food everywhere and restaurants all over the place, but this place is where you can legitimately expect great food. Formal theological study of the New Testament in a school of theology means learning what the ingredients of this great feast are, and then helping to serve the amazing food the chef has prepared, without dropping the plates on the way or spilling the wine. Incarnational theological study proceeds from the assumption that God serves this banquet in flesh and blood – for Christians, in the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and in the Word continuing to be revealed to us in our immediate and lived contexts. This means taking account of our own flesh as well – where we are, our gender, our socio-economic status, our privileges, our theological heritage, and so on. The Word meets us where we are and engages us. This is the sine qua non of theological incarnational conversation with the New Testament.
Long, Noisy, Life-Giving Conversation
There are a few important things to know when embarking upon a conversation with the Bible. The first is that the conversation has been going on for a long time. In the case of the Hebrew scriptures it has been running for over 4,000 years – longer than that if you include oral tradition – and will keep going on so long as there are people able to talk about the Bible.
The second thing about this conversation is that it has been a raucous one. The kind of conversation the Bible invites us to imagine is not the measured exchange one might overhear in a university classroom, nor the hushed whispers of a church sanctuary, absolutely not the polite exchanges of strangers at a bus stop. No, the Bible’s invitation to conversation is rather the kind that takes place at a noisy family meal with all the relatives around the table. There is the weird uncle and the quirky aunt, the strange cousin, the brother who drives you crazy, the sister-in-law you would rather never see again let alone talk to, and the parent with the embarrassing stories. Everyone is talking at the same time; some people are trying not to talk to each other. Whatever time you arrive – whether late or early – you have a seat at the table and once there you are meant to join in with everyone else. In many ways the Bible itself is the outcome of a centuries-long conversation, first amongst the people who were parts of the traditions that came to be written down, and then – after they died – between the people who gathered and edited and then circulated combinations of texts that eventually came to make up the Bible. Like the people around the table, the talk around the canonical table is also rowdy, sometimes with sharp disagreements, at other times with consensus, but always lively.
conversation is often messy – there is the mess of us, the mess of history, the mess of
the world around us, and, yes, even the holy mess of God
The third thing to know about this conversation is that it is about life and death. The best conversations are always like that – they matter and to take part in them is to be changed. They are risky conversations because we won’t leave them the way we came into them. Some approaches to New Testament study are not risky. They are more like a scientific set of observations about the data without much depth of personal engagement. Theological study of the New Testament is not like that – it invites engagement, full immersion, and passionate encounter. Theological engagement with the New Testament does not come dressed in a lab coat, it is a “come as you are” kind of event, which we are invited to enter with our commitments. Theological study doesn’t ask you to check your prejudices and past experiences at the door. It is these things that make us the conversation partners that we are. We enter this conversation from our unique context, but also expecting to be challenged, excited, angered, confused, and above all called and therefore changed. Christians and Jews believe that God uses the Bible to awaken life within us, to make us more fully human, and to live out what God is calling us to be in this particular moment in history. It is a life and death conversation and anyone who studies the Bible as a theologian is always in a process of living and dying, being called out to new horizons, and exhorted to leave old ones. This means that this conversation is often messy – there is the mess of us, the mess of history, the mess of the world around us, and, yes, even the holy mess of God who is revealed through all of the Bible as one who is for us. Nothing is neat and tidy, nothing is well ordered, life is often bewildering and confusing. No one can furnish the Archimedean Point that will be the lever to move everything through the right interpretation of the New Testament. We will only know the New Testament’s word for us when we attend to what living and dying are about.
The final thing about this conversation is that it is – to put it frankly – very weird, couched in languages spoken thousands of years ago, in cultures and situations dramatically different from our own, filled with strange metaphors and foreign ways of looking at the world, and describing the world in odd ways. Sometimes when you are around someone who speaks in a peculiar way you end up picking up his or her expressions and turns of phrase and you start to sound a little foreign yourself. Anyone who comes into this study needs to understand that people are going to notice you don’t sound or think like you used to. That can make everyone uncomfortable and that is as it should be. But it is strange in another way too – it keeps turning you to what matters most and keeps that in front of you so long as you keep looking: life, death, love, sex, justice, even taxes and politics. These things are expressed in ways charged with metaphor; they are conveyed through stories, and spoken of in ways we don’t usually put things. So to be part of this weird conversation means learning how to be weird yourself, to be prepared to find yourself in foreign lands, with strange ways of naming and describing things.
Not everybody is called to formal study of the Bible. Those who are learn to look at things in new ways and to listen carefully. This is a life long journey whose ending cannot be predicted at the outset. The one thing for certain is that those who embark upon it can expect to be delighted with holy surprise along the way.
Harry O. Maier is Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at VST, where he has taught for 25 years. He writes and researches on a diverse array of subjects ranging from the study of Paul and apocalyptic and their intersections with Roman imperialism to eco theology. His most recent book is New Testament Christianity in the Roman World published by Oxford University Press and dedicated to his students.