A Response at AAR to Hunsberger’s “Proposals…” Essay

Author: Michael Barram

[Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Chicago, Illinois, November 1, 2008]

Let me begin by thanking George for this very thoughtful and stimulating paper, which admirably summarizes, critiques, and synthesizes the presentations and proposals made in these "missional hermeneutic" sessions over the past six years. I find his reading and assessment of the hermeneutical "streams" that have been emerging to be both insightful and challenging. He has, I believe, moved the conversation forward significantly, and I would not be surprised if we eventually look back on his attempt to tease out the contributions and implications of these "streams" as something of a watershed moment in the course of our ongoing conversations.

As George correctly notes, it has become increasingly clear that the various presenters in these sessions have been using the phrase "missional hermeneutic" in different ways–at the very least, with differing accents and emphases. He has mapped, in a fairly persuasive way, I think, four streams in these conversations by attending carefully to the primary focus or "centering vision" of each stream in turn. First, George discerns, especially in the work of Wright, LeMarquand, and Goheen (and presupposed in various ways across the proposals he surveys), a fundamental framework for a missional hermeneutic, namely, the character and narrative shape of the missio Dei in the Bible. Second, he finds in Guder’s work the aim or goal of biblical interpretation, namely, to flesh out, appropriate, and enact the "equipping purpose" of the biblical texts for the community’s missional witness. Third, George notes that my contributions have focused on an approach to biblical interpretation characterized by questions that must be asked in light of the interpretive community’s missional location. And finally, drawing on Brownson, Wagner, and his own work, George identifies a fourth stream that envisions a missional hermeneutic in terms of the gospel’s function as an interpretive matrix in which the canonical biblical tradition and the concrete contemporary context of the community are linked and critically engaged.

Despite the differences between these four "points of gravity," George suggests that they should be understood as synergistically related and mutually informing rather than opposed to one another, and he interprets the emergence of this "expanding and rich force field" as a clear indication that the broad contours of a missional hermeneutic are beginning to take shape. George suggests that perhaps each of the four "streams" contributes a fundamental question to this emerging hermeneutic. The focus on the missio Dei leads us to ask: What is the story of the biblical narrative and how does it implicate us? The emphasis on equipping challenges us to ask: What is the purpose of the biblical writings in the life of its hearers? Stressing located questions presses us to consider: How shall the church read the Bible faithfully today? And recognition of the gospel as the interpretive matrix urges us to reflect on: What guides our use of the received biblical tradition in the context before us?

In short, George’s careful review highlights the robust character of the conversation to this point and helps to articulate the interrelationships between, and implications of, the various proposals. Perhaps most importantly, George’s work begins to clarify a few of the hermeneutical challenges that lie ahead.

Let me simply pose just a few of the myriad questions that his work raises. Perhaps these are musings more than questions. In any case…

I find George’s thesis about the four-part synergy to be both helpful and fairly persuasive. My main questions have to do with implementation, particularly in light of the "important corollary" to his thesis, namely that "none of these is sufficient on its own to provide a robust hermeneutic." Implementation becomes even more of an intriguing question given the implicit scaffolding–dare I say hierarchy–seemingly at work in George’s articulation of the four streams. At the simplest level, I wonder about what this corollary would mean when we actually sit down to engage with biblical texts. I am quite heartened that the entire conversation has moved well beyond a narrow and piecemeal use of biblical passages and references, and that mission and sending language are understood in far more robust and fundamental ways than they are often employed in popular usage. And yet I’m still not entirely clear on how we know that missional interpretation is what’s being done in a given reading. George suggests that a lack of uniformity should be seen as a sign of maturation, which leads me to wonder, To what extent is some form of uniformity a goal to be sought? I agree that "a robust hermeneutic" would require attention to more than one–and perhaps all–of the "streams" George discerns. But is a fully "robust hermeneutic" necessary in each interpretive exercise in order for a reading to be considered missional? If an interpreter fails to attend to all four "streams" in a particular reading, is his or her analysis somehow less representative of a missional hermeneutic? Perhaps another way of putting this more sharply would be, Are there ways of thinking about mission and or missional concerns in dealing with biblical writings that would or should not be included within a missional hermeneutic? In the end, I’m still wondering, I guess, how concrete exegetical methodology relates to the notion of a larger, "robust hermeneutic."

Perhaps one of the elephant-in-the-room facets of this whole four "streams" discussion is whether there may be other major and significant "streams" that have not yet been proposed explicitly. I cannot imagine that these four "streams," for all their nuance and emerging "gravitas," have captured all that might be captured with respect to reading the Bible from a missional perspective. I can’t help but wonder what blind spots may yet have gone unnoticed. All of the proposals, for example, at least in this session, have been from a relatively narrow milieu in terms of social location: white, male, North American Protestants. What might other voices from different "locations" bring to the conversation?

Relatedly, I continue to be struck and frankly a bit uncomfortable with the interpreter-centric assumptions implied in the four "streams." It should be clear that not only do we as the interpreting community ask questions of the text, but also the text asks questions of us–indeed, we might say, biblical texts ask hard, challenging questions about our questions. Moreover, although some of the proposals take context quite seriously, I wonder if we have dealt adequately with the context of the other, that is, the context of the one who is engaged–in whatever form–by the missional community. How does the encounter with the other challenge the power and privilege so often presupposed in the community’s understanding of its "sentness"–and indeed, of its appropriation of the gospel? I wonder if a missional hermeneutic would be even more robust if we could come up with a "stream," or at least a focused question, that actually privileged the perspective of the other confronted by mission.

In any event, the gospel should function, as in "stream" four, as the interpretive matrix in a missional hermeneutic, but I’m struck by how much humility must therefore come into play as we proclaim the gospel–seeing how so much of gospel proclamation has been thoroughly misguided in myriad ways through history. At the very least, it would seem that a healthy missional hermeneutic must reflect an honest and continual acknowledgment that the community of faith is sent for divine purposes that are not, to us, fully self-evident. We Christians have too often assumed that we understand what God is up to, what mission means, and what our role in the process is–regularly using the Bible to find whatever might reinforce such presuppositions. In view of this uneven history, I suspect that readiness for the kind of thoroughgoing (and constant) perspectival revision implied in the Apostle Paul’s work (as articulated by Wagner and noted by George) will be key to a "robust hermeneutic."

I’m grateful to George for mapping the conversation so helpfully, and I’m eager to hear what others have to say as the dialogue continues.