A Personal and Social Transformation through Scripture

It had become clear to me in the parish that most biblical scholarship was irrelevant to the lived concerns of everyday people.

By Walter Wink
Auburn Theological Seminary
February 2004

    The otherwise even flow of my life as a scholar-for-the-church has so far hit two snags. Both have irreversibly changed my course.

    I was hooked by the first snag in 1962. Having completed work on my Ph.D. except for the dissertation, I was at last established as pastor of a church in southeast Texas, trying to write my thesis with one hand and taking care of pastoral duties with the other. The church was generous in allowing me time to study--and I needed that time for my psychic health because I had walked into a congregation in shambles. It was no little relief to be able to retreat into the first century and thus escape the conflict and pain of the parish. The worse the storm outside, the more I fled to my study inside. Within nine months, I had the writing finished.

    Five years passed. I was preaching two different sermons every Sunday at first, then, mercifully, only one. Over those five years, I must have preached upwards of 350 sermons. I was appalled at how little help I was getting from my bulging library, scholarly journals, and commentaries. The scholars who were writing ostensibly for us clergy were making little or no connection to our sermonic needs. They seemed rather to be answering questions raised by other scholars, almost all of them of a historical character. At first, I blamed myself. Now it is characteristic of most of us that when we uncover such anomalies as these, we dismiss them as aberrations of our own personal experience. That was where I was inclined to leave it. After all, I could scarcely blame my teachers for the problem. They were all deeply committed to the truth claims of the Scriptures. So I dismissed my snag as the peculiar problem of an escapist parson.

    Then, in 1967, Union Theological Seminary invited me back to teach New Testament. In this more exposed setting, dealing with students embroiled in war resistance, black economic development, curriculum reform, and the "Columbia Bust" of 1968, the question of the Bible's relevance for modern life was stridently and insistently posed. At the same time, I was meeting more and more pastors to whom I would put the question, at first very tentatively, almost as if to make conversation: What role does historical criticism really play in your preaching, your personal Bible study, your leadership in congregational study? The answers varied widely but enough were sufficiently disturbing that my sense of the anomaly grew. I was not off the snag. I was impaled on it, and so were they. I would never be rid of it till I plunged into the water and dug out its roots.

    The fruit of that effort was published in 1973 under the title The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973). I had at last located what was for me at the base of the anomaly, thanks to the help of others who had pointed the way. Simply but quite precisely put, the historical-critical approach to biblical study had become bankrupt, not dead. The critical tools had a potential usefulness if they could only be brought under new management. But on the whole, the American scholarly scene was one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books that fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer addressed the lived experience of actual people in the churches or society. Instead, they addressed the current questions of their peers in the professional scholarly guild.

    The net result was a gathering malaise, a crisis of morale, and a dawning recognition that what was once a vital contribution to the emancipation of people from the constrictions of dogmatism had become a new constriction in its own right. My once private snag had now gathered quite a company. Hooked were hundreds of scholars, whose original intention in entering biblical studies has long since been compromised, squeezed out or suppressed. Most of us had originally found ourselves drawn to the Bible. It chose us, as it were, or something in it chose us: something speaks in it. We were attracted to it--not out of curiosity or mere historical interest, but because we believed it could evoke human transformation. Biblical scholarship would be our ministry, our self-offering to the Kingdom of God.

    Then, ineluctably we found ourselves jettisoning the very questions and interests that led us to begin. We were caught in the web of intellectual objectivism with its pretense to detachment, disembodied observation, and uninvolvement as the ideal stance of the researcher. Bultmann had already exposed the false consciousness of objectivism, yet it continued to flourish in biblical circles. I can only guess that a key reason is the history of denominational pluralism in America and the understandable reluctance of universities and colleges to permit the teaching of religion in a way that smacked of sectarianism. Hence, objectivism with a vengeance: the more religion could be taught as an exact science, the less offense it would cause. Moreover, this occurred at a time when the physical sciences were beginning to repudiate objectivism!

    It had become clear to me in the parish that most biblical scholarship was irrelevant to the lived concerns of everyday people. The vast majority of scholars seemed to be interested only in answering questions other scholars were asking. The community of accountability among biblical scholars had ceased to be the church and had become the academic guild of professional scholars. Now, back in an academia under siege, I sensed all the more powerfully the impotence of the detached, objective approach to Scripture for dealing with the real issues of life.

But it was not enough to criticize the old mode of biblical scholarship. What was needed was an alternative, new paradigm, a way beyond the anomaly. I was planning a "normal" scholarly sabbatical in Tübingen, Germany, when two of my former students persuaded me to look into a program in San Francisco with the Guild for Psychological Studies. Using Jungian-depth psychology as an aid in interpretation, Dr. Elizabeth Boyden Howes and her colleagues were studying the Bible in a wholistic context aimed at the transformation of persons. I visited that summer, found it the answer to my need, and reversed directions on my sabbatical.

    The approach of the Guild for Psychological Studies provided just the distance I needed in order to fight free of the hold which the objectivist paradigm still exercised over me. From my studies during that sabbatical and during each of seventeen subsequent summers, I not only received necessary training in the Guild's Jungian approach for use in my own work, but I was also able to articulate an alternative to the current scholarly paradigm which, I hoped, might be at least one way to help free others who were caught on the same snag.

    The heart of her approach was a Socratic style of biblical study aimed at human transformation. The leader’s role is to probe the group’s understanding of the text by means of carefully prepared questions. Insofar as these questions are themselves the fruit of the leader’s thorough exegesis of the passage, the questions are intended not to manipulate the group into coming around to the leader’s opinions but rather to guide the group to an opening or “clearing” in which the questions and realities that brought the text into being can be encountered once again. The leader is a guide, a person who has “been there before” and can therefore indicate something of what awaits the explorers. But it is the task of the group to discover the manifold wisdom and truth of what is there and to articulate the insights that emerge.

    And because insights are first felt, long before they take the form of thoughts or words, the group regularly uses art forms--clay, painting, music, meditation, and written “dialogues.” These activities help to surface and embody the inchoate first stirrings of the Spirit’s new work, as it is mediated by the group’s reflection on Scripture. (Details can be found in my Transforming Bible Study, 2nd ed. [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990].)

    More important, however, was what began to happen to me. I began to sense that I had to do something about the poverty of my own self. Otherwise, I would be unable to proceed closer to the mystery in Scripture but would simply continue to circle its perimeter, accumulating ever more information without my being changed by the encounter.

    I am beginning to understand that no scholar can construct a picture of Jesus beyond the level of spiritual awareness that she or he has attained. No reconstruction outstrips its reconstructor. We cannot explain truths we have not yet understood. We cannot present insights that we have not yet fathomed. Our picture of Jesus reflects, not only Jesus, but the person portraying Jesus, and if we are spiritual infants or adolescents, there are whole realms of human reality that will simply escape us. In Rev. 1:19, the seer John is ordered, "Now write what you see." The problem lies precisely there: in sight. We can only describe what we see, and if we haven't seen it, we may miss the revelation entirely. It is my spiritual blindness that is the greatest impediment to my scholarship.

    One of the early exercises in the first seminar I attended at the Guild in 1971 was to make out of clay my own inner paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). I had a Ph.D. and a prestigious academic appointment; I "had" no paralytic. Life was spinning along just fine, I thought. But to be a good sport I tried it. Shutting my eyes as they suggested, I let my hands have their way. After a period of time had passed, I looked to see what my hands had done. They had made a beautiful bird--with a broken wing! I am no artist and was simply astonished that my hands had done this. More significant still, I suddenly knew precisely what that broken-winged bird was in me: an atrophied feeling of function. Thus began the task of recovering my capacity to feel that was to last, in earnest, for the next several decades.

    In time, my wife June and I began to lead workshops together, using not only clay and pastels, mime, and role playing, but also her own unique blend of meditation and movement. When I learned about right/left brain theory, it was like an epiphany. I began to understand why these exercises “worked” so powerfully. We had simply been “half-wits” and were recovering the brain’s full function.

    Meanwhile, in the flow, I had hit another snag, as important as the first and as intractable. But by that time I had learned to respect my snags, to believe in them as a certain kind of voice. So I honored this one. I had, in my book, discussed the importance of "exegeting the exegete," of bringing under analysis not only the analyst's attitudes and reactions to the text, but also her social situation, her vested interests, and the political implications of his or her work. I had no clear idea of how to proceed, nor had any of my subsequent work helped me significantly. In fact, my preoccupation with psychological insights tended to eclipse social and political questions.

I thought to myself, "Surely it is the people involved; they are not politically aware.” But then I led Bible study with the most politically aware and intellectually astute of all our students; I worked with an ecumenical and interracial group in East Harlem; I went to every conceivable class of church. Still it did not happen. No matter how much I wanted discussion to verge on the social, it generally tended to remain privatized, individual, personal. At first the sheer excitement of what was happening to people at a personal level mesmerized me. I was willing to leave it at that. Later they would become social activists, I hoped.

    Finally I had to concede that it was not going to happen, and for exactly the same reason that it almost never happens to Billy Graham's converts, or people in psychotherapy or the human potential movement, or devotees of Eastern religions, or simply students of theology. It would not happen because it could not happen. There has been erected an invisible glass wall between ourselves and the social system. Whenever we try to move against the system itself, we hit the glass wall; we are deflected, and we rise to transcend the discomfort of injustice or institutional evil by purely private means. It is the ideology of individualism, and in this country, it exists to protect racism, sexism and the class system of capitalism.

    The received wisdom till then was that the New Testament is only concerned with personal ethics; if one is interested in a social ethic, one must turn to the Exodus or the prophets. Then I read William Stringfellow's Free in Obedience (New York: Seabury, 1964) and became convinced that the biblical category of principalities and powers could serve as the basis for a social ethic based on the New Testament. Work on The Powers That Be, first conceived as a single volume, grew into ten books and occupied 28 years.

    As a part of my preparation for writing about The Powers That Be, June and I decided to spend a sabbatical semester in Chile in 1982 so that we might experience what it is like to live under a military dictatorship. As a result of that experience, I became increasingly convinced that nonviolence was the only way to overcome the domination of The Powers That Be without creating new forms of domination. I decided to test this hunch in South Africa where we spent part of a sabbatical in 1986. On our return, I wrote a little book, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987), which urged the churches of South Africa to become more involved in nonviolent direct action against the apartheid regime.

    With the financial help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, our little church in the Berkshires of Massachusetts individually addressed 3,200 copies to the black and white English-speaking clergy of South Africa. Later, the South African Roman Catholic Church distributed another 800. The book infuriated some; how dare a white American male tell those who are already suffering to suffer more, voluntarily and deliberately.

    Even more anger came from those committed to a violent solution. But the book had its intended effect. Someone from the outside had to say what few within could say without losing credibility. The book redefined nonviolence (which was heard there, due to the conservative white missionaries, as nonresistance and passivity) in an active, militant sense, and did so by appeal to Jesus' own teaching. Within a year, the debate had completely reversed itself (my book was only one of a number of factors) and the head of the South African Council of Churches, Frank Chikane, was calling on the churches to engage in active nonviolence.

    My growing interest in nonviolence led to an appointment as a Peace Fellow for the year 1989-90 at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

    My preoccupation all these years has been to facilitate personal and social transformation through Scripture and art, movement and meditation, even as we throw ourselves into nonviolent social struggle. I am thrilled to see liberation, feminist, womanist, black, and gay theology each emerging in its own right. The enormous resistance of scholars to the transformative task is at last beginning to yield. Increasingly, scholars are recognizing that we cannot change our scholarship unless we change our lives.

    I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censor it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, cowardice, and an addiction to war. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating until it wounds my thigh with "new-ancient" words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both.

    That wrestling insures that our pictures of Jesus are not mere repetitions of the prevailing fashion. They can be a groping for plenitude, an attempt to carry on the mission of Jesus, and an effort to transcend the conditioning of the Domination System. And in the end, we may not just be conforming Jesus to ourselves but, in some faint way perhaps, conforming ourselves to the truth revealed by Jesus.

    My deepest interest in encountering Jesus is not to confirm my own prejudices (though I certainly do that) but to be delivered from a stunted soul, a limited mind, and an unjust social order. No doubt a part of me wants to whittle Jesus down to my size so that I can avoid painful, even costly change. But another part of me is exhilarated by the possibility of becoming more human. So I listen in order to be transformed. Somehow the Gospel itself has the power to activate in people the "hunger and thirst for justice" that Matt. 5:6 speaks about (whether by Jesus or by someone else of the same mind). There are people who want to be involved in inaugurating God's domination-free order, even if it costs them their lives. Respondeo etsi mutabor: I respond though I must change. And in my better moments, I respond in order to change.

    Truth is, had Jesus never lived, we could not have invented him.

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