A fundamental question for Christian thought and practice today is the boundary and authority of ‘the text’ in the modern world. In the missionary encounter with the West (Newbigin et al), what and whose is the script? By drawing our attention to the encounter between specific embodiments of the Christian message and different elements of the European literary heritage, Anton Wessels (‘Europe – Was It Ever Really Christian?’, SCM Press) forces upon us the vital question about what, in actual practice, constitutes ‘scripture’ in the world today.
Christians commonly claim that this has already been decided by the canonicity of their Bible. But such an assertion is challenged by the existence of several different canons of scripture in world Christianity. It is also threatened by deep historical and critical questions surrounding their formation and fixity, by the counter-claims of Jewish scholars towards a major part of what Christians see as the shared biblical heritage, and by the active presence in Western societies of other great religions claiming scriptural warrant for their own classic texts.
Wessels effectively widens such ‘dilemmas of scripture’ yet further, and in a missiological direction. He does this by showing how the engaged texts of Christianity (which, like all ‘scriptures’, create a world for their receivers and then exemplify how to act in it) must unavoidably contend with the texts of the beliefs and assumptions of a wider Western culture. These range from literary ‘classics’, the modern novel and scientific discourse right through to advertising, the news media and popular cyber-culture.
Such ‘texts’ similarly codify and transmit (however untidily) the dominant, authoritative narratives by which people and communities live. They are now far more influential and opinion forming than many of the books, including the Bible, which claim direct and obvious religious authority. Precisely because they both empower and delimit the worlds of those persons and groups who use them, these ‘texts of contemporary culture’ can justifiably — though not uncontentiously — be described as constituting ‘the text’ for all who deeply inhabit their stories. And since they also infuse and modify the appropriation of the Bible within our churches, this might be said to include Christians, too.
So in any missionary encounter (that is, in any creative interaction, communication and tension between faith and culture) the hermeneutical challenge is not just to convey the meaning of the biblical text in the midst of competing Christian claims about it. It is also to engage this task in the arena of a much broader set of competing claims about which texts are truly held or seen to be ‘scriptural’ in contemporary Western life.
For these reasons, many would suggest, it can no longer straightforwardly be said that the ‘missionary task’ with regard to the Bible is ‘just to proclaim it’ — as if its contents stood uncomplicatedly apart from the cultures in which they are transmitted and read. What Western Christians are confronted with instead is the theological task of discerning and performing the purposes of God amid the varied narratives of a visual, interactive, multiscriptural, intertextual society.
In this new setting the biblical text will continue to be at the core of Christian mission, of course. And the story of Jesus as the Crucified and Living One will remain its controlling centre. But where that might once have involved an a priori claim to textual and religious privilege, this can no longer be the case. In a multi-scriptural environment conversation must replace compulsion if we are not to do violence to each other, to our texts and (in a Christian context) to the Gospel.
Similarly, where previous biblical interpreters may have taken for granted the moral superiority and unassailable coherence of their founding documents, contemporary exegetes — conscious of the use of the Bible to legitimise colonialism, oppression, even holocaust — are required to acknowledge these texts to be both the bearer and subverter of revelation. For this reason every act of interpretation becomes an ethical and spiritual task with profound consequences for the shape and mission of the church.
As even a cursory look at the concrete use of the Bible in mission theory, literature and advocacy across the theological spectrum will confirm, we are still struggling to grasp such momentous questions. For the most part it seems that biblical texts are employed more to confirm prejudices and to win arguments than (say) to illuminate their role in shaping or questioning the identity and purpose of the church in specific contexts. Issues arising from the use and misuse of scripture in missionary encounter and their relation to the gospel-culture dynamic are therefore among the central questions for the churches as they enter a new millennium.
The insights and limitations of literary theory, the contextual practice in small communities of ‘participatory Bible study’ and the challenge of de/reconstruction all have a part to play in the sense of humble responsibility needed to receive, interpret and transmit the gift conveyed in our founding texts openly and faithfully. Walter Brueggeman (‘The Bible and Postmodern imagination: texts under negotiation’, SCM 1983) is among those who have powerfully positive things to say about re-engaging Scripture in the changing present.