Listening to the participants

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“I hope this is the beginning of something.”

With these excited parting words, Derek Suderman, assistant professor of religious atudies (Old Testament) at Conrad Grebel University College, ended a “Contextual Bible study” seminar at the college on Nov. 24, 2012.

The seminar was led by Gerald West and Bev Haddad of the Ujamaa Centre in the KeaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. “Ujamaa” in Swahili means “a person becomes a person through the people or community.”

West, professor of religion and theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, explained that this method of Bible study arose to “help local communities of poor, working-class and marginalized black South Africans [who] were torn apart by state-sponsored violence. In this context of daily death and violence, the cry went up, ‘How can we hear God speak to us in these times?’ ”

“The cry of the vast majority of black South Africans, most of whom are Christian, was how to find a new way of reading the Bible so that they could hear God speak to them. The ‘gospel’ proclaimed by the apartheid state and by many of the churches was not ‘good news’ for the poor!”

Key to contextual Bible study is the concept of praxis, an ongoing cycle of action and reflection. Reflection includes time spent with Scripture. In order to ensure the involvement of the community, the process begins with a lectio divina-type reading, in which participants respond to an oral reading of the passage with words, phrases and thoughts that stand out for them. All of the participants’ responses are written on a flip chart, validating and empowering them.

The second step has the larger group broken into small groups, where questions are asked of the text, causing the participants to delve deeper using literary analysis. The presence of biblical scholars and pastors in the groups helps them to learn more of the socio-historical context of the story that is being studied.

Further reflection includes wondering about all the stories in the text, the main one and seemingly peripheral ones. Are there characters or incidents that seem unimportant in the large story, but really are essential?

The study then moves to thinking about stories in the present time that connect with the ancient biblical stories. These connections then lead to action plans in the present.

West noted that this is a “see-judge-act” process, in which participants see the story, judge or discern God’s project in the text, and then act on what they have learned. After the action has been performed, the community returns to Scripture for further reflection.

The strengths of this method are the place for both the average person to make contributions to understanding, as well as scholars and pastors, and the commitment to act in ways that attempt to change society to fit better with “God’s project.”

Allan and Eleanor Kreider summed this up as “God’s commitment to reconcile all things.”

Conrad Grebel University College professor Derek Suderman holds up his group’s cartoon of the plot of the biblical passage being studied at the ‘Contextual Bible study’ seminar, while Chris Brnjas, a master of theological studies student at the college, explains it.

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