In her succinct and classic homiletic text “Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art,” Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale discusses the art of “exegete-ing” a local community. Exegesis is a skill many seminarians learn early in their career. To best preach the text, you must first exegete the text. I learned Biblical exegesis by looking at a text via as many contexts as possible.
First, as a good Presbyterian, I had to learn the original biblical languages of Koine Greek and Hebrew. This allowed me to more fully understand the original intent and meaning of the Biblical text. Further, layers of criticism would then be read and studied (historical, literary, racial, sexual, gender) to continue to best interpret both what the original audience would draw from the text, and how the text spoke to a more modern audience. From this study, and intentional prayer, I, the exegetical homilist (which is a fancy way to describe a “preacher”) could better understand the entirety of the text, and ultimately, better preach the Good News.
Tisdale takes this idea of Biblical exegesis and applies it to communities of people. Yes, an effective preacher should know the scriptures, however the preacher should also know the intended audience as well. Tisdale’s entire premise envelops a distinct sense of pastoral care and congregational insight. One best accomplishes this when “the preacher engages his or her own imagination in the hermeneutical task of bringing biblical world and congregational world together in proclamation that is not only faithful to Scripture, but that is also fitting, seriously imaginable, and transformative for the congregation.” Yes, Biblical exegesis needs to be done, but so too does congregational exegesis as well. T0 best preach to a community, one must exegete the community.
Throughout my life as an educator, I have adopted Tisdale’s premise and applied it to a classroom, or any educational setting. Yes, a teacher must know the material, but the better a teacher understands their students, the better a teacher can craft a lesson plan. An educator needs to exegete the students in a class, to best teach the students in a class.
This skill is almost universal. The better a hockey coach can exegete their team, the better the coach should be able to lead the team. The better a doctor can exegete a patient, the better they can provide medical care.
What Jackie Pullinger does so well in her inspirational, “Chasing the Dragon” is her uncanny ability to exegete the community she served as a missionary. “One name for the Walled City in Chinese is Hak Nam, in English, “darkness.” As I began to know it better, I learned how true this name was; the Walled City was a place of terrible darkness, both physical and spiritual. Journalists get good copy out of it, but when you meet the men and women who have to live and suffer in such a place, you can be broken by compassion.” Jackie Pullinger was broken by compassion. And once she learned how to exegete the darkness, was able to bring light to so many.
My hope is that this communal exegesis paradigm becomes much more commonplace in the mission field. Far too often we hear of mission workers poorly “exegete-ing” the community in which they serve, not fully understanding the needs of those living in the developing world, or not taking cultural aspects or “local color” into consideration. Contextualization is what Tisdale writes about and contextualization is what Pullinger uses to put her faith into action. I have no idea of Tisdale or Pullinger have ever met, or if they have read each others work, however the world is a better place because of community exegesis, both as an academic and spiritual practice, and as a mission and service imperative.