Empathetic Exegesis

 This is the introduction to this Sunday's message. It gives you a peek into how we are working with scripture at Freedom Friends.

And Much Cattle

An Empathetic Message About Jonah
For Freedom Friends Church
Sept 30, 2012

This morning we are going to look at the story of Jonah. It’s a very short story and it won’t take us long, so I want to take the time first to talk a little about how I use scripture and a way of using scripture that we offer here at Freedom Friends Church.

If I am any kind of theologian - I am a narrative theologian. That means that when I talk about God I usually tell stories. I have just found that this works best. People don’t argue with you so much when you can tell a good yarn. I like it because it uses my imagination, which has always seemed like one of the places where I am closest to God.  When I use my imagination to talk about spiritual things, God and I co-create. This is fun.

When I am being a student of the Bible or any other work of theology I try and use the very same imagination from the other end. I try and put myself into the story and listen to see which parts of it resonate with my experience. I try and listen to God while I am in the story and see if God has something for me in it that I wouldn’t have gotten from studying it from the outside. I try and identify with the characters. 

I try and view the world from through the lens of the story rather than view the story from the lens of my world. 

Our Friend Vail Palmer is writing an important book documenting this very thing. He calls it empathetic exegesis. He says that this is how Quakers have used scripture from the beginning. That they identified with the people in Scripture personally and deeply.  Vail suggests that this is a singular way of looking at scripture.  I love this because it frees me from two things I find very frustrating. One is the way I was trained the view the bible - literally. People wanted me to believe that everything in the book happened just in the way it said, and to take the book as a complete and practical guidebook for my life. This started not working for me when I was 7 and used a stack of National Geographics to try and count all the animals and make them all walk to Persia and fit in Noah’s boat. Didn’t work then. Doesn’t work now. And it is a weird guidebook if you try and take it literally - trust me.

Then I grew up and found about the modernists and textual critics and at first they offered me some hope. They said I could read the Bible and use my brains. This seemed like a great idea. But they seemed to want to spend enormous amount of brain energy arguing with the literalists, and then with each other, about just exactly how much of the book wasn’t true in any way. They took it apart like a lego castle. I loved the Bible, but I knew I didn’t want to argue about it.  And I couldn’t help but feel like they were missing the boat too.

Then  when I had given up on the preachers and professors I met a cowboy poet. And he was always tellin’ tall tales about how God worked in the world through grizzly bears and such. One day after a great story I asked him. Was that story true? And he said. “Pert near true.”  Ooo - this seemed shiny and dangerous, so I asked him. “What does pert near true mean?” And this is what he said. “Pert Near True is a story that is so true that it doesn’t matter a lick whether it ever happened or not.”  That man liberated me that day. Now Vail has come along and is giving me and that poet scholarly back up. I appreciate this.  I appreciated it when they told me that the point of Quakerism was to get back to the very feet of Jesus and let him talk to you, maybe tell you a story. Gave me hope that maybe I could be a Quaker after all.

So this morning this is what I want to invite you to do with me. We are going to crawl inside the old story of Jonah the reluctant prophet, and see if we can find anything true in it for us. See if we can identify with any or all of the characters.  See if we can hear the truth. Whether or not it ever happened.


Oh, Friend. This spoke to me today. I'm looking forward to reading more of this. -Mike
I didn't know this kind of scriptural interpretation required a new name. It's called "midrash"and has been happening for 2200 years. The root word DRASH means to investigate, to question, to inquire, to dig in. And midrash are the stories behind the stories of the Bible. Sometimes they are from the point of view the characters whose viewpoint is neglected, usually a woman or other disempowered participant -- like Hagar in Abraham's children stories. Other times it's fly-on-the-wall perspective showing the whole picture. It can be the "remez" or inner feelings concealed within the words brought out. Whatever it is, one rabbi said the Bible is "black fire" shining out of "white fire" and it''s our job to see the stories in the white flames/Light and tell them. That's empathic.
But I want to hear how you told Jonah's story. It's one of my favorites.
Vail tells me that he is much more likely to use the word hermeneutic than exegesis in his book. Hermeneutic is bigger than Exegesis, but he says that my usage is permissible. phew!

It's a bigger word, too! Just goes to show I suffer from the same malady as Rufus Jones: when Rufus and a professorial friend visited a meeting and were moved to speak, they used such big words that a dear elderly Friend in her poke bonnet followed by rising and saying, in her quavery voice: "The dear Lord said 'feed my lambs' not 'feed my gi-raffes'!
Thank you, Peggy, for bringing some of my thought down to earth!

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