Hearing Scripture’s diverse voices
How to appropriate the different, disparate voices within scripture was the subject matter when Professor Gerald West delivered the 2022 May Macleod Lecture at United Theological Centre on Thursday 21 July.
Professor West is Professor at the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classic & Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
Some of Professor West’s work includes developing Bible studies for marginalised people, including people living with HIV. His wide ranging lecture often returned to the theme of hearing the marginal voices in scripture, the church, and society. The theme, he said, was to look at how the Bible is used and how it might be “re-used” in ways that give life rather than cause death.
Professor West said that he often holds the Bible to his ear during his first classes.
“Can you hear it speak? No. It requires a reader,” he said. Professor West pointed to 2 Samuel 21:14 as a passage not included in the lectionary.
“A strange section of scripture,” he said the text had different voices in it. King David, the Gibeonites, and Rizpah.
He said that he gave people in Bible studies one voice each to consider from these different groups.
“My own view would be that the narrator of this text retains (all the disparate voices) and asks the reader to consider who it was (who led to God blessing the land with rain).”
“Scripture itself has contending voices, already there,” he said.
Professor West said that, during the struggle against apartheid, the church and theology were sites of struggle.
“I was asked to leave my church because the church did not like me getting involved in ‘politics,’” he recalled.
He recalled that the Kairos document, a contextual theology document that emerged from the time, was a seminal text in describing different voices within theology.
State theology, church theology, and prophetic theology are three different strands of theology that the Kairos document said were contesting with one another. The latter was a theology that stood up for the rights of the downtrodden and the marginalised.
“You will find state theology in the bible. You will find church theology in the bible, and you will find prophetic theology in the bible” Professor West said.
He argued that the Bible itself was a site of struggle between these theologies, rather than a single, uniform document, where all contributors agreed.
For example, according to Professor West, the book of Ecclesiastes likely has an additional ending that was probably added so as to contest the book’s theology.
“This overt contestation gives us choices (as to how we can read Ecclesiastes). Something like prosperity theology will not go into Ecclesiastes, because it does not affirm (this) theology. But there is also covert reuse (in other books), where the text does not tell us that it is being reused.”
He cited instances, “Where Matthew uses Mark.”
“We can then track how Matthew reuses Mark. Matthew takes Mark and reuses Mark in an interesting way.”
He said that Matthew also used the hypothetical Q document and his own sources, as well as Mark.
“Matthew (in the crucifixion story) emphasises the body of Christ.”
He indicated that Matthew, “makes it clear that violence has been done to Jesus” by repeating four times that Jesus was stripped.
“Often the use and reuse of marginalised voices is subtle,” he said.
He cited the example of the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel by her brother, and how the story is often used to focus on patriarchal concerns (such as who would next be king) rather than hearing Tamar’s own voice.
Contextual bible study
Contextual bible study is a method that Professor West commended, that “does not gatekeep scripture.”
“Contextual bible study makes use of re-used bible texts.
“Can we hear voices that bring life rather than death?”
The Bible, he noted, had brought death as well as life, such as for First People.
He said that this involved collaborating with marginalised groups in our own contexts to hear the voices of marginalised people in the texts.
Professor West cited the early work of Walter Brueggermann as helpful in understanding how his theory could apply to the life of the church.
“He speaks of two major trajectories running through scripture, but he also speaks of the faith of Israel living in between these two voices.”
The church, he said, needed different voices within it.
“Leadership has got to be nurturing different voices,” he said.
“Don’t chase away your prophets. Nurture them because they will remind you of the voice of God in scripture.”
An annual tradition
The May MacLeod Lecture is an annual address.
It especially aims to honour “Those who come not to be served but to serve” and is intended to be presented “In terms that ordinary people may hear gladly.”
“I picked up immediately (the May Macleod lecture’s) emphasis on the ordinary person” (in the lecture’s theme) he said.
Professor West said he resonated with May Macleod’s intent to help inform “ordinary readers of the Bible.”
Past speakers include Rev. Dr Tim Costello, Rev. Dr Val Webb, and Dr Meredith Lake, among others.
United Theological College Principal Rev. Dr Peter Walker said that the lecture served an important role in the life of the Uniting Church.
“An endowment was made to the centre for ministry in 1986 after [May Macleod’s] passing,” he recalled.
“It’s that gift that allows us to gather each year, to hear from a remarkable list of…scholars and community leaders.”
“[May Macleod] was a much loved member of the Carlingford Uniting Church.”
The address was also streamed via Zoom.