Following in Tyndale's Steps: Reading the Bible with Marginalised Groups today

I am sure William 'Tyndale would thoroughly approve of the Bible being read among groups of marginalised and poor people in our society today.

In and around Glasgow Bible Study Groups have been formed in Urban Priority Areas, among Peace and Justice Groups, ex-offenders, to name a few. Tyndale might have been intrigued by the idea of Contextual Bible Study (CBS). But then a lot has happened in the field of biblical scholarship since Tyndale's pioneering work to access the Scriptures for the ploughboy and his contemporaries.

The inspiration for studying the Bible critically and contextually among marginalised groups emerged from the struggle for liberation against apartheid in South Africa. It was realised among scholars there that the Bible had been interpreted by the white minority rulers to support their political will and justify the notion of white superiority and privilege. Black people also read the Bible as a source of empowerment in their struggle for liberation. Until then I think most ordinary people had always assumed that there was only one rather narrow way to read the Scriptures. The starting point is from 'the top down', a sort of trickle-down system which assumes the authority to put forward the 'right' view-point.

The Institute for the Study of the Bible (ISB) in Pietermaritzburg, under the guidance of Dr. Gerald West, has researched the experiences of the different groups involved in South Africa during and after the years of apartheid. It is his work that lies behind the inspiration to study the Bible among marginalised groups in Glasgow. In 1995 Professor John Riches of University of Glasgow formed a group of comprising of students, clergy and trained lay-people to embark on a project to read the Bible with groups who are involved in different areas of social concern today. It is hoped that that the insights of ISB can interact with our own experience of local groups and the issues they raise. Contextual Bible Study is a process which involves the 'trained' readers and 'ordinary' readers in a mutual exchange of skills and experiences as they read the Bible together.

Briefly, the main commitments are:

  1. To read the Bible critically - using the tools of biblical scholarship which are provided by the trained reader, for example, bring out the historical, sociological, literary or thematic perspectives in the text. We also recognise that the Bible itself emerged from different contexts.
  2. To read the Bible from a particular perspective - CBS in South Africa specifically reads the Bible from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed. Since the Bible is one way in which we believe God speaks to us today, we need to understand that we all approach the Bible from a particular context. The work in Glasgow focuses on marginalised groups and it is their perspective that guides our interpretation of the text. (An example of this work is given below).
  3. Reading the Bible in community - this is a two-way process. Both trained readers and ordinary readers have something to offer to the reading of the text. If trained people dominate the group, then the contribution of ordinary people will be lost. The challenges that arise from an encounter with grassroots engagement with the text pose new questions for biblical scholarship. Conversely, the untrained reader of the text might not realise the complexities in the text. They need to be empowered to develop critical skills in reading the Bible. Sharing knowledge and skills in this way provides a creative framework in which to dialogue with the Bible. The experience of reading the Bible with people from different lifesituations is much more life-giving. It also acts as a check against the tendency to think that academic approaches to the text are the only valid ones. This shakes up our pre-conceived assumptions and opens up new ways of seeing the text.
  4. Reading the Bible as a resource for personal and social transformation. Because the Bible is itself a priceless resource, it is hoped that by promoting a critical and contextual reading of the text, ordinary people might be better prepared to understand their life-situations. The critical consciousness people develop as they read the Bible can, it is hoped. enable them to better interpret their own situation and the wider structures of society which bear upon them. In the South African context this has given many ordinary people a sense of empowerment to cope with their situation and allowed the Bible to be dynamic and relevant to their daily lives.

This process is not as complex as it sounds! Whatever way we choose to read the Bible we should apply the same critical analysis to our reading of the text as we do to understanding the complexities of living our daily lives today. The Bible is a complex document. It is also a wonderful medium with which we can interact. It does not require that we all must be academics! Heaven forbid! We can bring the skills we unconsciously develop in our daily lives, i.e. reading the newspapers or listening to T.V. to enrich our readings of the Bible. Ordinary readers have shown that they are remarkable responsive in connecting the difference aspects of the text once they realise they exist.

How does this work in practice? A group of ex-offenders in Glasgow have had regular meetings with some of the members of the CBS group. Here is a group of men who have been violent and have been themselves victims of violence actually reflecting on the issue, perhaps for the first time. The text chosen was Mark 11, 15-19: Jesus' action in the Temple. The facilitator of the meeting put certain questions to the group about anger. The concept of righteous anger was explored. Why was Jesus angry? Then the question of how do we relate to this kind of anger? Perhaps a better understanding of anger would emerge from the debate. But here, at the very least, the text was relevant to the life situations of these men and everyone in the group participated in the discussion.

Contextual Bible Study is not a static process. It is continually evolving as new discoveries are made, not only about the Bible, but about ourselves, each other and the society in which we all live. It is also a long-haul process. We cannot not measure results.

As Tyndale tried to do long ago, we who have formal training in biblical scholarship want to bridge the gap between the academy and society at large. By sharing our knowledge and skills with others, we hope to empower them to read the Bible for themselves. We are sure that their humanity, generosity and wisdom will resonate with the Bible's truth. Their pain and rejection can give a contemporary understanding to what the Bible has to say to us today. And who knows, it may well be that their experience of life will challenge attitudes, not only towards the shocking social issues of our day, but to the way the Bible has been traditionally understood.

Maureen Mackay Russell

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