So here’s a bit of a story-within-a-story. My friend, Carmen Fowler LaBerge, e-mailed and asked if I knew anyone who might attend and write up the “Faith Seeking Understanding” event at Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte this past weekend. I know Carmen well enough to know that, despite perceptions to the contrary, she is eagerly interested in “good news” stories in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I also know and am friends with Tom Currie and many of the folks over at UPS/Charlotte and have attended a number of their fine events and value their presence in Charlotte.
The event included a public Sunday afternoon presentation by Jason Byassee, a United Methodist pastor from Boone, N.C. His presentation was called “Reading the Bible with the Whole Church” and was described as being particularly relevant for 21st century Christians.
Byassee said of his own presentation, “My work has been about giving dead Christians, namely saints, a say in how we read Scripture. This is very hard to do, as we’re all conditioned to read the Scriptures with modern eyes, and often our ancient forebears’ ways of reading look very strange to us.”
Byassee’s target audience?
I’m a local pastor and would have enjoyed attending the event myself, but had a prior commitment, so I pondered who I knew who might be interested in the event. I had recently met a young, single mom who was between jobs and looking for work. She is a sharp, Christian woman who is active in a very contemporary church. I thought, “Perfect!” She seems like she would be Byassee’s target audience – a 21st-century modern Christian – and the small fee for writing the article would help her out with some groceries and immediate bills.
She wrote me Sunday night to thank me for the opportunity, but said she lacked the seminary training and familiarity with theological terms to really follow the flow of thought well. But, she took some good notes, and I think she probably took more away than she realized. Here are some highlights, in her words:
- The speaker wanted to persuade the audience to read much of the Old Testament through allegory, as Augustine did. (He used the words allegory, Christology and Augustine over and over.)
- The Old Testament text can only truly be understood and fully known by the author who wrote it; there is such a difference in time period and culture that taking a literal meaning doesn’t always work well.
- Scripture is always true but some (like Psalm 137) doesn’t make sense to the reader unless it could mean something other than what was written.
- Allegory is presenting what you know (it’s all about Jesus) in a delightful new way.
- This distance from the Old Testament text – the “mystery of the Bible” makes us seek Jesus more to understand it; that’s the beauty of it.
- Allegory is the preacher’s art; it takes the reader from confusion to illumination to delight.
Pretty good for a “non-seminary-trained” member of the public! I wish I had been able to ask a few follow-up questions of Byassee:
- Is this one ‘tool’ in your exegetical toolbox or your general approach to the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures?
- Say a little more about allegorizing to Jesus; is the New Testament Jesus more propositional, or is He also shrouded in mystery to be allegorized to our personal experience of Jesus?
- This was open to the public, but you repeatedly described this approach as “the preacher’s art.” Does allegorical reading of Hebrew scripture require specialized training, or is it something any layperson might employ with difficult texts?
- I’ve intentionally referred to “Hebrew scripture” because I think Rabbis and Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew scripture would take issue with an all-Jesus allegorization approach. How would you respond to them? Is there intrinsic value in the Hebrew scriptures apart from explicit connections to Jesus?
- Christians, of course, call the Hebrew scriptures the “Old Testament.” Covenant theology also presents an interpretive lens that connects Old Testament narrative to New Testament realities, and much of that covenant theology finds its roots in the early Church Fathers. Have you explored that as an alternate or additional “tool” to allegorical methods?
All that is to say that I think Byassee and I would have a wonderful time talking hermeneutics over lunch. In fact, if I’m ever up in Boone, I’ll probably try to connect with him.
As far as this event at UPS/Charlotte, I wish I had been able to go; I’m thankful my friend was able to go, though I wish I could have gone with her to explain some of what she didn’t follow; I wish Tom Currie or some of the folks from the Union community could have offered a counterpoint from the rich resources of Covenant theology; and I wish I could have asked some follow-up questions to explore more of what those who have gone before can teach us about reading Scripture.