How to ‘exegete’ a place
Image: A town crier in the public square, From this fun post about why they dress the way they did
Next week I’m taking a group of students from my old stomping ground, Queensland Theological College, to my new stomping ground, South Brisbane. I had to think of something that a wet behind the ears graduate church planter person could possibly hope to offer these guys that is valuable. And that isn’t just grunt work like door-knocking (the bane of college missions, I can say this now that I’m a graduate and a minister, not a whining student — don’t treat college mission students like an army of grunts who really need to learn how to doorknock or do some suitably mundane thing, make mission interesting and helpful). So we’re going out on an excursion to South Brisbane to exegete the suburb. To read the culture. To think about how we might speak the Gospel into this culture, and live the Gospel as part of this culture. (So, maybe I’m getting them to do my market research, but at least it’ll be fun — as you’ll see below, it’s really just going to involve them drinking coffee and using their eyes and ears).
In Christian parlance we use the word ‘exegete’ to describe the task of reading, interpreting, and understanding a text. In my circles this means interpreting a passage using a framework that we bring to each text — where we ask what God is saying in that passage through the person who wrote it to the people he’s saying it to, the people who first read it, and by extension, us. We ask how it fits in the bigger picture of God’s story, The Bible (Biblical theology), particularly with a view to how it helps us understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how it fits with what we know about who God is via the rest of the Bible (systematic theology). We’re guided by trying to understand the historical context, including the language originally used (Hebrew, and Greek). We’re guided by trying to understand the literary context — the genre, the author, the audience. Exegesis is really important for drawing sound conclusions from the Bible in order to point people to the truth it contains.
Good preaching, good evangelism, requires good exegesis. A good understanding of God’s word, and the Gospel.
Exegesis. It’s a good word. Even if it sounds a bit fancy pantsy.
Good evangelism also requires good listening. Good loving of the people we’re speaking to. Not just belting people on the head with what we think.
To be good proclaimers of the Gospel we need to conduct an exercise similar to the exercise we conduct with God’s text, the Bible, with the people we speak to. We need to exegete the culture we hope to speak to — just as loving God’s word leads us to carefully interpret it, loving the people we hope to speak to leads us to carefully interpret them. Exegesis is a sort of attentive listening. We can’t just bring our own pre-conceived agenda to a text, reading it on our terms and bringing our own meaning (that’s called eisegesis). That’s not treating the text with respect. In the same way, we can’t simply shout (or speak) our message to the people around us. We need to listen to, and respect, the people we’re speaking to in order to love them, as much as we need to tell them our good news in order to love them. And we’ll tell them our good news, about the life changing death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that makes it clearly good news if we understand them better.
We need to exegete the people in the places we’re sent to share the Gospel. The best, clearest, picture of what this looks like is found in Paul’s visit to Athens. It’s there in the text of Acts 17, but it’s also beneath the text (and we can make this picture richer through good exegesis). This post isn’t ultimately exploring Paul’s methodology in Acts, its trying to give a guide to what applying this methodology might look like in our time and place. But I’ve bolded the bits here I think are really important for building our own model. The odd bits I’ve bolded in his speech at the Areopagus are where Paul quotes important philosophers and poets from the world of his hearers (and his own world — one is a philosopher from Tarsus). Paul carefully splits his audience by quoting some people he knows appeal to certain thinkers, and then showing some inconsistencies in the tests they’re trying to apply to his message — his good news — about ‘Jesus and the resurrection’… Even as Luke writes he demonstrates, himself, a familiarity with the lay of the land in Athens and with who was who in the Athenian zoo. He knows what parts of Paul’s time in Athens are significant to observe and record for the sake of those looking to Paul’s methodology for a model for our own presentation of this good news.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus,where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else [note: Paul is articulating a common, stoic, belief about God here, as well as a Jewish/Christian belief]. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [Paul is quoting sources his audience is familiar with, though the ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ also has Old Testament roots]
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. — Acts 17:16-34
Paul’s evangelism is pretty savvy. It’s savviness doesn’t guarantee wholesale conversion, but this is Paul speaking in an environment that is hostile to Christianity, and because he lovingly pays attention to the people he is speaking to, and takes the time to connect, he gets a hearing for the Gospel, and some people, by God’s grace, and through the work of the Spirit, hear what he has to say and believe. They’re left wanting to hear more about Jesus and the resurrection.
Anyway. How might we do a Paul? Do we need to read ancient philosophers? Or was Paul doing something more like watching reality TV and being an astute observer of culture? It would be easy to make this sound hard, but I suspect as a Tarsus born Roman citizen, as well as being an educated Jew, Paul was simply bringing who he was and what he knew to the act of lovingly and carefully observing the people he spoke to. It’s not rocket science. Evangelism is simply a matter of carefully listening to the people you love, in order to lovingly offer the Gospel as a better path to human flourishing. That’s what Paul does. He says you guys really want to find God. You long for that. Well here he is.
Our modern idols might not be statues — but they tap into, and represent — similar longings, and are part of similar frameworks or philosophies. We’re creatures of desire. Part of presenting the Gospel is understanding these desires as they take shape in different places. You could do worse than checking out the TV guide for the Lifestyle Channel. But desires manifest themselves differently in different places and amongst different demographics. Place is important. Paul operates differently in Athens, Corinth, and Jerusalem (though both require a careful exegesis of where he is, and he’s equally lovingly incisive in each place).
This isn’t hard. We invent all sorts of labels for this, like contextualisation. But what we really mean by this is loving the other person. Listening. Understanding. And doing this before we speak. The only reason that’s hard is because our default is still to put ourselves and our truth first. We’re meant to put Jesus first, and then the other. That’s meant to flavour how we speak. So Paul says in Philippians 2:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” — Philippians 2:1-5
Listening well, loving well, involves humility. Christ shaped humility. That’s part of living out and speaking the Gospel. It’s the humility that leads us to put others first in the way we speak about Jesus. Because the way we live and the way we speak should line up. Like they did for Paul, in Athens, and in Corinth, where he ‘resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified’ and later says:
I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. — 1 Corinthians 4:17
As I mentioned in a recent post, I love the idea from philosopher Iris Murdoch that loving goodness, virtue even, requires us to unselfishly try to truly see the world around us, and to understand what drives the people around us in order to understand them in a good and loving way. That’s what Paul does, and its at the heart of a virtuous approach to sharing the good news (and its why bashing people over the head with what we believe about them, rather than engaging with what people believe about themselves is frankly an unloving way to undermine our message by through methods that don’t match up).
“…goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
I collected some advice from smart people on social media, and I’d written a thing on ‘exegeting a place’ a few years back with my public relations hat still on, which turned out to actually be somewhat sage advice. So. Here’s what I’ll be asking this team of students to ponder as they wonder the streets of South Brisbane (bonus points if you’re a QTC student reading this ahead of time. The reason I’m posting this now is to ask you, the hive mind/brains trust to suggest better questions to ask when reading a place.
Questions to ask when exegeting a place
I reckon these are some good questions to guide us in ‘walking around’ and ‘looking carefully at the objects of worship’ in a place.
Where do the people here come from? Are they locals? Do they work here? Or is this a ‘third place’ (somewhere they come to play, rest, eat)? What are people doing with their time? Are the cars parked on the road new or run down? What demographics of people are here?
How does life here match the stats? Where would you find stats about this area? See if you can find some. What stands out? How would you find out about the future of this area? Who could you talk to to understand life here?
Are the people working or running businesses here busy? Optimistic? Happy? Satisfied?
What would it be like to live here? Where are the key places/nodes? Transport? Services?
Count the cranes in the skyline. Investigate. What are they here for? What is being built? How does this make locals feel? How might it shake up the fabric of this area?
Where are the marketplaces where ideas are discussed? What are the idols? What are the longings that create these idols? What are the “common objects of love” here? The things that bring people here, and bring people together? Where are people forming community? Where is shared life happening within this community/place? What are the ‘rituals’? What are the ‘festivals’? What is the default spiritual practice?
What is ‘life’ like? What’s On? What’s trending? What looks new? What looks old? What looks run down? What looks empty? What looks popular? What art is being produced, displayed, and celebrated here? What are people photographing in this location online (Instagram etc)? What are they reviewing on trip advisor? Beanhunter? Urban Spoon? What are they saying?
What are people spending money on? What are people giving time and attention to?
What are the loves driving people in this place? What are the obvious needs? What stories do you imagine people living in this setting? Where are the ‘philosophers’ behind these stories? What is being advertised on location specific ads here (advertisers do demographic research so you don’t have to)? What does local media talk about (find a copy of the West Ender)? What is the history of this place, how is it present in the present?
What observations can you make about this place that would help shape how you proclaim the Gospel here? What sort of things would you do in this community to help people hear about Jesus and the resurrection?