Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Interpreter Needed

Written by: on February 13, 2014

When the apostle Paul stood among the statues and idols in the city of Athens, he took some time to understand not only his physical surroundings but, more importantly the people within that particular surrounding.  He had a message that he needed to transmit, but he first needed to get some clarity about the frequency that his audience, the Athenians of Act 17, were most likely to be using.

In the words he used, he didn’t denounce or discredit the political authority of the time nor did he disparage the business practices of the community. Rather, he looked for clues in the conduct of the people and their representative cultural symbols. What is sometimes forgotten, is that he took time (a number of days) to listen to the conversations in the marketplace and in the religious settings, getting a feel for the topics that meant the most to them. He asked questions of inquiry and engaged in conversations.  In so doing, he likely also had his own conversation going on, unheard and unrecorded with The Spirit of God, about the opening that existed to share eternal truth into a present circumstance that appeared rooted in the past and yet somehow pointed toward an uncertain future.

At times Paul transmitted, at other times he received. On the one side from The Spirit of God, from the other side, the people of Athens. That is the role of an interpreter: to facilitate the exchange of information between two parties that otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate.  Clive Pearson suggests the need for bilingualism in order to be effective in cultural engagement. [1]  Few, if any would disagree that an interpreter must be well versed in the formalities and the dialectic nuances of two languages in order to truly be effective.

One of the major points evident throughout the majority of readings this week, was the awareness of the need for interpretive skills in our current cultural contexts. These interpretive skills were best captured by the list of questions posed by Graham, Walton and Ward:

 “Questions concerning the conversation partners of theology in the contemporary context lead us to consider other important issues. If this method rests on a dialogue between “Christian tradition” and “experience” then what do these categories actually contain? What kinds of experience are referred to, and how will it be articulated? What disciplines and methods will be adopted to bring such experience to light? Whose experience is deemed authoritative?” [2]

Paul took time to notice and respect the traditions of the Athenians. The evidence of their statues revealed beliefs that were shared by the community, perhaps for many years, even centuries. However those statues and idols didn’t just represent the past. They also represented a hope for the future, even if it that hope couldn’t be accurately articulated. Another important reminder form these readings was the role of traditions. There is certainly a tendency for us to rush into a communities or projects without taking the time to understand the reason behind established patterns. In ignoring the reason for these patterns, according to Terry Veling, we may miss the opening to understanding their (a community or a person’s) hope for the future. [3]

If I had to pick one of the various genres of theology that would be most significant for my current ministry application, it would be contextual theology.  Stephen Bevans, in particular, challenges the reader to engage the present, in due consideration of the past, with a focus on the future. [4]  A challenge to be sure, but all interpreters need to be disciplined in their training and focused on their role.  In my role as a pastor it has been valuable to move into the community where our building is located, observing patterns of behavior and getting involved in local activities. It’s helped me to learn the language of our community.

In view of the importance of contextual theology, the call for intentionally equipped theologians are all the more crucial, according to Robert Schreiter: “The theologian cannot create a theology in isolation from the community’s experience; but the community has need of the theologian’s knowledge to ground its own experience within the Christian traditions of faith. In so doing, the theologian helps to create the bonds of mutual accountability between local and world church.” [5]  Schreiter is calling for the theologian to be a skilled and equipped interpreter.

Our western thinking is often clouded by our innate desire to be part of a big accomplishment or to see dramatic changes take place. This is where the wide reaching policy-minded approach of both political and public theologies seem to miss the mark in their theological approaches. They become more like theories to adopt or plans to implement without proper regard for the nuances of the local context or the people groups in those local contexts or the individual people within those people groups. Theology must have application in real time, addressing the real questions of real people.

The contextual theological interpreter is placed in just that position, to do what Stackhouse purports as being most effective. “With the proper cultivation and development, they are refined as they work their way not from the bottom up, nor from the top down, but from the center out.” [6]  Real change according to Stackhouse and the Apostle Paul is neither a political movement nor a grassroots movement, rather it can be effectual through an interpreter capable of facilitating a conversation between Our God as they stand among/within a people and a community.

Interpreters needed. Apply locally. – Jesus (John 1:14)

[1] Pearson, Clive. “The Quest for a Glocal Public Theology.” International Journal of Public Theology. 1, no. 2. (2007):151-172, 155.

[2] Graham, Elaine, Heather Walton and Frances Ward. “‘Speaking of God in Public’: Correlation.” In Theological Reflection: Methods, edited by Elaine Graham, Heather Walton and Frances Ward,138-169. (London: SCM Press, 2005), 167.

[3] Veling, Terry A. “Scripture and Tradition – Heaven’s Door” in Practical Theology: On Earth as It Is in Heaven. 23‐37. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 37.

[4] Bevans, S. “Contextual Theology as Theological Imperative” in Models of Contextual Theology. 1‐10. (Maryknoll New York: Orbis Press, 2002), 9.

[5] Schreiter, Robert J. “What is Local Theology?” in Constructing Local Theologies, 1-21, (NewYork: Orbis, 1985),18.

[6] Stackhouse, Max. “Civil Religion, Political Theology and Public Theology: What’s the Difference?” 275-293 Political Theology 5:3, (2004), 291.

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Deve Persad

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