Asking questions, getting answers

Returning to my blog after a longish break, I came across this half-written post and thought I might finish it and publish it.

At the end of last year for the first time I was teaching earliest Christianity during the leadup to Christmas. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the pews and listen to preachers talking about the Advent readings from a faith perspective whilst preparing lectures for Studies in Religion students and then reading essays about the challenges for the early Jesus movement. Something that has stood out starkly for me is that the information that you get from the text depends to a very large extent on the questions you bring to it.

The Studies in Religion students had been asked to write about the challenges that the members of the early Jesus groups faced and how they responded. The preachers were talking about the challenges that Christians today face and how we might respond to them. Both groups were using the Bible as a primary source of their answers, but the answers they were giving me were quite different- or they should have been. Unfortunately, some of the students gave me information about how to live as a Christian today, which, whilst not unreasonable things to read out of the text, was the wrong answer to the question they were addressing. Because the preachers I was listening to are good preachers, I didn’t hear sermons that just told me about how the early Jesus groups responded to the challenges of their time, but I have certainly heard this kind of sermon in the past. Usually the preacher of the latter kind of sermon has offered a very reasonable assessment of the situation at the time of writing of the text, but it has not been the right answer to the questions that most members of congregations bring to Sunday worship.

The early Christian texts are capable of providing answers to a range of both historical and faith questions and I think it’s perfectly valid to ask both kinds of questions of them, but it’s important not to confuse the answers. Or to try to force the answers to your questions down the throats of people who are asking different questions. As someone whose initial training in biblical studies was focussed on answering faith questions, I find that I have to watch quite carefully at times that I don’t slip into that mode in my current writing, but careful historical work is an essential basis for the faith work.

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