Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Beyond 'Context': Asian Hermeneutics at the National Meeting

The importance of non-Western voices in the Society is one of the noteworthy and accelerating trends of the 21st century and is the theme of this month's issue. The international meeting is one of the most striking markers, but conversations at the annual meeting have also emphasized the increasingly multicultural nature of biblical studies.

One such program unit in San Antonio last November was the Asian and Asian-American Hermeneutics Group, which featured a set of presentations on identity and pedagogy. The essential question was: How does one teach in a way that is sensitive to culture while also empowering students to be critical of their culture? One of the unit's important presentations was made jointly by Archie C.C. Lee of The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Gale A. Yee of Episcopal Divinity School (Cambridge, MA).

Lee's remarks were brief and to the point: He noted that social-contextual factors ought to be taken into account by educators: the nature of the student body, the school's social location, and the personal quest for identity on the part of learners. He believes that Asian texts and cultures are just as valuable as conversation partners of the Bible as are Western texts and cultures. For example, exegetical tools for Daoist and Buddhist texts are similar to those for the Bible, he said, yet most biblical pedagogy is not sensitive to an Asian social location-even in Asian schools.

Lee also criticized the beliefs that "the meaning of the text is independent of culture, race, power" and other contextual factors, and that there is a "pure, un-cultural Gospel message." He identified a common but false assumption that "Asia is context, while the West has the text," and he closed with a call for a new movement to search for effective Chinese pedagogical structures and frameworks.

Yee followed with an account of a year that she spent in Hong Kong teaching at the Chinese University there. She noted many challenges she faced: she was new to the place, and had only a few weeks of Chinese language study under her belt. There was only one other (untenured) woman teaching there in the Department of Religion. Ideologically, she found that her interests in feminism, racism, classism, and colonialism were largely new to her students.

Referring to Gayatri Spivak's principle that research begins with a critical exploration of one's own historical position as the interpreter, Yee asked her students to complete a self-critique. The group, made up mostly of graduate students, was culturally and ideologically diverse. One thing they had in common was that, at the beginning, they did not think that their own cultural location influenced their interpretation of the Bible. The course raised their consciousness.

Among the issues that Yee and her students worked on was feminism. Yee asked: "Is feminism a Western export, foreign to the Asian context?" Her answer: No. She sees a strong need for feminist scrutiny of Asian cultures as well as Western. For example, she asked her students to consider the "three obediences" expected of a woman in traditional Asian cultures: she is to obey her father, her husband, and her son. Other issues she raised in Hong Kong included the exploitation of cheap Asian labor, prostitution, and cultural imperialism.

Yee undertook self-exploration along with her students, and these were three of the principles that emerged from her time in Hong Kong: 1. Biblical interpretation must re-think mono-interpretation and embrace plurality of interpretation.

2. The hermeneutic methods of Asian traditions may be relevant to biblical pedagogy.

3. There is no "pure" exegetical study apart from context. All exegesis is socially located.

Decades ago, James Cone observed that "what people think about God cannot be divorced from their place and time in a definite history and culture" [1]. This view continues to find support. While Lee and Yee focused on the Asian context, their remarks were part of a larger international dialogue about the future of biblical interpretation. In a world that is increasingly connected, they point the way towards a broader, more inclusive discourse about the Bible.

Chris Hays, Emory University


1. Cone, James H. 1997. God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, Orbis Books,

Citation: Chris Hays, " Beyond 'Context': Asian Hermeneutics at the National Meeting," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.