01 June 2015

How Russians read the Prodigal Son

This is an interesting commentary from Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition, a ‘broadly Reformed’ network of Protestant churches who do evangelism, social outreach and advocacy. It takes a close and careful comparative look at how Russians and Americans read and interpret the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of S. Luke:
And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
The Peterburgians interviewed by Mark Allan Powell in this analysis are far better about remembering the ‘mighty famine’ in the Lucan passage than the American seminary students are; the Americans are far more likely to remember the ‘wasted his substance with riotous living’ part. This shapes indelibly the way in which this passage is interpreted, and where the wrongs of the younger son are seen to lie. The Americans emphasise that the younger son was wasteful and spendthrift; the Russians emphasise that he had broken off contact with his father and saw himself as self-sufficient, thus leaving himself defenceless against misfortune. But it is particularly interesting in another way. It seems to be making an implicit, but still quite strong, argument against the Lutheran / Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura:
First, we ought to consult a variety of sources and scholars as we study the Scriptures. I know pastors who vary their commentaries based on theological diversity. Very well. But perhaps we should also consult commentaries from people in societies different from our own, to see what our cultural blinders may have screened out.

Second, we should consider how our sermons fall on the ears of others. We must be aware of the social context of our listeners and consider not only what we mean to say but how it might be heard. In order to get our intended meaning across, we must know the people we are preaching to and be able to understand how they hear us.

Powell mentions how Bible readers often remain “oblivious to what they themselves are bringing to the process, unaware that the sorting and organizing of data is influenced by particular factors of their own social location. People who hear our sermons do the same thing – they sort the auditory data, prioritizing, organizing, remembering, forgetting: they create a meaning that seems appropriate to them with little awareness of the extent to which their social location has influenced that process” (19).

Better Bible interpretation and better preaching happens when we keep social location and cultural background in mind: the social location of the Scriptures, of ourselves as interpreters, and of those who hear us preach.
An interesting insight indeed: to understand the Gospel we have to understand the people it is being preached to, and the position of the person preaching it! That is precisely the reason that the Scriptures cannot be the sole source of authority; we are always going to condition them through our own experiences, and there is a danger that our blindness to certain aspects of the text, and our heretical emphases on certain others, will influence our thinking about the text in ways which run contrary to the meaning of the text as it has been held by the community of believers. In order to ascribe any authority to the Scriptures, in other words, one has to be able to point to a living, communal body of interpretation and practice through which the Scriptures can speak. Without the Church, the living body and bride of Christ, without the Liturgy and the Sacred Tradition, Scripture itself loses its inward coherence and meaning and becomes subject to individual whim, cultural prejudices and passing fashion.

No comments:

Post a Comment