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

Author: James V. Brownson

[Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Boston, Massachusetts, November 22, 2008]

I am grateful to George Hunsberger for his very helpful summary of a wide range of research. He has provided us with some useful categories for further reflection on "missional hermeneutics." I find George’s framework to be a helpful one, which summarizes an enormous amount of material, and does so in ways that seem to me to be fair and insightful.

But I want to inject one other note into the conversation, which is not explicitly addressed by George, but seems to me to be important. I begin with the simple observation that missional encounters between people are, almost by definition, cross-cultural encounters. To the extent that this is true, then it follows that a missional hermeneutic is one that sees this cross-cultural encounter as the central context out of which interpretation takes place. This is most closely addressed in George’s third category, which focuses on the location of the reader. A hermeneutic that is explicitly missional is one that sees interpretation as taking place in a three-sided conversation: not merely a conversation between the text and the reader, as in traditional western hermeneutics. Instead, a missional hermeneutic envisions a three-way conversation between the reader, an "other" who hears the text differently, and the text itself. It is this notion of otherness, implicit in reading the text in the midst of cross-cultural encounters, which is vital to a missional hermeneutic.

I want to push a little further on this, particularly in conversation with the more explicitly post-modern hermeneutical literature that begins with the notion of difference. In the post-modern world, difference is fundamental, absolute. The economic, social, and political powers of this world seek to suppress this absoluteness of difference under a variety of totalizing narratives, but they can never fully achieve their goal. Difference continues to leak out around the edges–our deep and abiding strangeness to each other.

And it’s not only the great powers of the world that construct these metanarratives which seek to suppress difference. We construct metanarratives together with people who are like us, and in so doing, we reassure ourselves that difference is not absolute–that there is a deeper and abiding commonality that holds us together. Our images of God–even a "missional" God–may be just such metanarratives. But one doesn’t need to read much of theorists like Derrida and Foucault to understand their argument that such metanarratives may simply be a form of self-deception, a way of avoiding the ontological priority of difference, our fundamental aloneness in a world which will always remain, in deep and basic ways, strange, foreign, and inexplicable to us.

The post-modern response to this encounter with deep, ontological difference is bricolage. Derrida speaks of bricolage in this way: "the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, . . . every discourse is bricoleur."[1] We assemble traces, elements, pieces of traditions into some sort of pastiche which, at this point in time, seems satisfying, but which itself is merely composite, subject to endless borrowing, augmentation, reframing, and reconstruction.

So the question to those of us who want to develop a missional hermeneutic is a simple one: is this all that we are doing, in speaking of a missional hermeneutic? Are we simply arranging the same biblical chess pieces in a different configuration? Are we simply constructing a bricolage that serves our particular interests, which happen to be missional or missiological in character? Perhaps, but I would argue otherwise, at least for a way of approaching the task that is conscious of these dangers and moves to limit them. But I don’t want to make that argument simply by appealing to a massive exegetical argument which asserts that missio dei is in fact the deep metanarrative of Scripture. That is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a missional hermeneutic: necessary, because without it, such a hermeneutic cannot even begin, but not sufficient, because there will always be elements of the biblical narrative that may not perfectly fit such a framework, and render the project vulnerable to the suspicion that it is, in reality, simply a more compelling piece of bricolage.

So what would constitute not only a necessary, but also a sufficient condition for a missional hermeneutic? I would argue that the answer is found in the way such a hermeneutic addresses the fundamental reality of difference itself as it manifests itself in the missional encounter. I would argue that a missional hermeneutic neither suppresses difference, in the way that totalizing narratives typically do in human culture. Nor does a missional hermeneutic regard its work as simply arbitrary, subject to the sort of aesthetic mixing and matching that simply pleases in a passing, ephemeral way, depending on the needs and concern of this or that particular community at this or that particular point in time.

But if a missional hermeneutic is going to avoid becoming either a totalizing narrative that suppresses difference, or a pastiche that simply satisfies for the moment, a missional hermeneutic must take the reality of difference with utmost seriousness. And this brings us back to where I started a bit ago, in speaking about the centrality of cross-cultural encounter for a missional hermeneutic. Newbigin remarked long ago (and George Hunsberger wrote an entire dissertation on the topic[2]), that there is a striking providence in the way that the New Testament unfolds–a providence that, as Newbigin would argue, originates deep in the divine electing purpose for humanity as a whole. That providence is that we all should hear the gospel–at least when we hear it most transformingly–from someone who is deeply "other," from someone who is not like us.

Already in the New Testament, Jews only discover the fullness of the gospel when they see it take root among Gentiles; and Gentiles only discover the fullness of life when they hear the good news from those strange Jews. In other words, there is something about the gospel which only discloses its deepest and truest transforming power when it crosses cultural boundaries; when speaker and hearer, in the midst of deep and abiding difference, find a still deeper unity with each other in Jesus Christ. A missional hermeneutic recognizes this, and places it at the center of the hermeneutical task: the most important things that God has to teach us–and the only way that our apparently fundamental difference and aloneness can be overcome–can only be learned when we hear the gospel from someone who is different from us in deep and abiding ways. In this way, the hermeneutical task and the goal toward which the gospel itself is directed are finally the same goal: the reconciliation of all things. This reconciliation happens, however, not in our constructed narratives, but only in Jesus Christ. It is apprehended, not comprehended; tasted, but not consumed. A missional hermeneutic thus must continually break itself open again to the reconciling work of God in Christ, lest any of our constructed narratives displace the true reconciler.

Here we come to what I believe is the heart of a missional hermeneutic: Not simply a claim about God–that God is on a mission to this world in which the church is invited to participate, necessary as that may be (and it is necessary for a missional hermeneutic!). Not simply a claim about the biblical narrative–that it finds its deepest and most encompassing frame in such a vision of God and God’s mission, as necessary as that may be. Not simply a claim about the purpose of the biblical narratives to equip the church for mission, as necessary as that may be. Not simply an attentiveness to the transformative dynamics of the context in which the gospel message is heard, as necessary as that may be, and not even simply a focus on the centrality of the gospel as interpretative matrix, as necessary as that may be.

But in addition to all these things–in fact completing and focusing all these things, a missional hermeneutic calls us to center the interpretative vision upon a text such as Col. 3:11: "In that renewal there is no longer Jew nor Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!" From a purely human perspective, difference can never be overcome; it inevitably results either in violence and suppression of difference, or else in an endlessly fluid and shifting matrix of images and discourses. But the gospel holds out a vision for a deeper and transformed vision of what it means to be human. That image is the body of Christ, in which difference is not erased, but rather called into something deeper, richer, and more powerful. It is a vision of reconciliation without uniformity; of a world in which our endlessly shifting patterns of bricolage are caught up into an even deeper harmony, a song the melody of which we are still only beginning to learn.

That’s the missional hermeneutic I want to work towards: one which engages the reality of difference as deeply as the post-modern world does, but which helps that same post-modern world to hear an even deeper song, which draws all of us, with our divergent voices, into the music of the spheres, into the Body of Christ.

What differences will this make, concretely, in the interpretation of Scripture? First, I think it is important not to forget the themes that George speaks of in this essay. All of them are necessary! But injecting this cross-cultural appreciation of the significance of difference will bring certain emphases and practices to the fore. First, it will underscore the critical link between interpretation and the various practices of cross-cultural encounter and friendship, without which missional interpretation will remain abstract and ungrounded. Secondly, it will lift up the parabolic dimension of Scripture, which opens us up to a God who continually draws us out of our comfort zones and into mission. Thirdly, it will invite us to lift up from Scripture a theological anthropology that cultivates a vision of reconciliation as indispensable to a full humanity. This reconciling vision provides a specific focus and direction to theology and ecclesiology, inviting a vision not only of the overcoming of hostility, but more deeply of the bridging of difference and the overcoming of indifference. Finally, this approach invites academic research that focuses upon the significance of cross-cultural encounters within the biblical text, and thus invites the exploration of the missional encounter of the people of God with their surroundings as a clue to the core movements of the text.

[1] Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
[2] George R. Hunsberger, Bearing the witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin’s theology of cultural plurality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).