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The idea that "ordinary readers" of the Bible may have something to offer trained biblical scholars is nothing new.[1] Scholars working outside of the "center" of biblical studies have long challenged the old paradigm of what constitutes "legitimate" critical reading of the Bible and have suggested that "ordinary," non-academic readers may have much to teach those of us trained in biblical studies.[2] Recently, however, this message seems to be gaining broader acceptance in the Guild as a whole. One thinks, for instance, of the recent Semeia Studies volume Reading Other-Wise[3] or the inclusion of a Service-Learning and Biblical Studies Workshop in the program for the 2008 Annual Meeting (SBL) in Boston.

This broadening recognition of the importance of "real" readers in biblical interpretation raises the question of how we might incorporate contextualized exegesis courses—which would bring our students into contact with "ordinary readers" outside of their usual contexts—into theological education, and to what benefit. As a teaching fellow at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, I designed and implemented such a course, titled "Reading Job from the Margins," in which theological students interpreted the Bible with the homeless, the incarcerated, and senior citizens.[4] In what follows, I want to share my experience of that course, to suggest the value of contextualized exegesis courses in theological education, and to discuss what I see as some of the strengths and weaknesses of the course as I designed it.[5]

The basic principle behind the design of the course is that "ordinary readers" have their own valuable insights into the meaning of biblical texts and so should have a voice in the interpretation of those texts, particularly in the context of theological education. Biblical scholars and religious leaders are often trained to interpret for people, as though we are the only arbiters of correct meaning, or perhaps to "give a voice to the voiceless," as though the ability to speak is ours to grant. The reality is that "ordinary readers" are not voiceless; rather, their voices are often ignored in the process of interpretation—a silencing that theological education often encourages, wittingly or not. My course explores what happens when we interpret with people, valuing their insights into the text and its meaning as being equal to our own critical approaches. The resulting model of biblical interpretation, which I have termed "dialogical exegesis," presumes that trained and untrained readers have much to teach one another and that all of our interpretations will be richer for the interaction.

For my experiment in dialogical exegesis, I chose to focus on the book of Job, which itself embodies a discourse among disparate voices concerning God and the meaning of suffering.[6] In fact, I modeled my course itself on the book of Job, trying to create a classroom in which multiple perspectives on suffering, theodicy, and the meaning of Job could simultaneously be made present. These voices were to be my own, those of my students, and those of their contextual reading partners, whom I hoped to draw from a diversity of backgrounds often excluded from biblical interpretation in the context of theological education.

To that end, I chose four reading sites in the city of Atlanta, assigning my students in groups of two or three to each site. One group read Job with inmates at the Metro State Women's Prison, a maximum-security state penitentiary. A second group worked with a senior citizens group at Emmaus House, located in Peoplestown, a lower-income neighborhood of Atlanta. A third group read with the residents of a long-term homeless shelter called Clifton Sanctuary Ministries. The final group read with the homeless guests of Central Outreach, an organization serving a more transient and truly unhoused population. When our class met on Tuesday nights, after my students had read with their contextual groups during the week, the voices of all of these contextual reading partners were, in a sense, present with us, inspiring and critiquing our interpretations of the book of Job.

With the contextual sites selected, I assigned my students the task of discerning—together with their reading partners in the respective sites—how best to study Job in their particular contexts. After three weeks of orientation to the sites, each group of students was to engage in an eight-week study of the book of Job with their contextual reading partners. I offered no preset model for these contextual Bible studies, as importing a model from outside the context would violate the principle of "reading with," in which the Bible study leaders and participants are to have equal status in the conversation. I did, however, assign Paulo Freire's classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which helped my students clarify the methods and purposes of dialogical education, which strives to empower participants to claim their full status as subjects of their own education.[7]

To help the students imagine possibilities for structuring their studies, I assigned readings from scholars who have been doing similar work in a variety of contexts, particularly Gerald West, Musa Dube, and Bob Ekblad.[8] Drawing on these scholars' models—and in conversation with their reading partners—each group of students developed their own methods for interpretive conversations suited to their particular contexts. In the homeless shelter, for instance, the men were often eager to talk about their life experiences and the ways in which they related to the character of Job. In that context, the Bible study was sometimes as simple as reading the text together and then asking, "What is going on in this text?" or "What do you think Job is trying to express here?" In contrast, the group working with the more transient homeless population found that activities somewhat abstracted from the biblical text often worked best. For instance, during one session, homeless reading partners were asked to gather into groups based on their responses to statements such as: "It is okay to question God when something bad happens," or "It is okay to be angry with God." Once divided into their groups, they discussed their responses.

In the prison, conversations often moved dialectically between the text of Job and the women's experiences of being incarcerated, their frustration over the prison's exercise of authority, and their hope for the eventual restoration of their former lives. With the seniors' group, the study leaders learned that giving any appearance of questioning God or the biblical text quickly shut down conversation. They learned that the question, "What do you think Scripture is trying to teach us here?" opened up meaningful conversations about Job, faith, and life.

In addition to the weekly meetings at their contextual sites, the Candler students met together with me once per week for a three-hour class session. For the first half of each class period, we discussed what we had learned from our reading partners during the previous week. Sometimes this took the form of particular insights into the biblical text itself. At other times, we discussed the difference in what the Bible "means" in an academic context and among senior citizens or the homeless. Discussion sometimes involved theoretical issues about how texts mean and whether one can say that certain readings are "right" or "wrong," "valid" or "invalid"—who gets to decide, and who gives them that power?

At other times, the discussions were more pedagogically oriented. Some students wrestled with how to teach the Bible meaningfully in contexts with low literacy rates or high incidences of mental illness. Other struggled with Christological interpretations of the book of Job and whether one could or should declare such readings "out of bounds," as critical readers are wont to do.

During the second half of each weekly classroom session, we engaged in an academic, critical reading of the text of Job. The idea was to equip my students with a critical interpretation of Job, which could then inform their conversations with their reading groups in the contextual sites.[9] The biblical text discussed at the end of one week's classroom session would be "read with" in the contextual sites during the week; it would then serve as the basis for the discussion during the first half of the following week's classroom session. Thus, each portion of biblical text was treated three times: once critically, once by "reading with," and once by integrating the previous two modes of reading.

The final project, a 10-12 page academic paper, provided an opportunity for students to engage the course materials from the perspective of whatever questions or problems they had found most engaging during the semester. A brief description of some of their final projects may help to demonstrate the type of learning that took place in the course:[10]

LaTrina Jackson attempted to identify the main sources of theology functioning at Metro State Women's prison. She identifies these sources as: (1) the Bible as an instruction book and direct conduit to God; (2) the strict authoritarian nature of the prison system, with the explicit expectation that the "doctrine of retribution" works unfailingly; and (3) a persistent hope for liberation. She argues that for a scholar to "read with" the women of Metro State requires a willingness to entertain these three principles as valid starting points for biblical exegesis—even if it means violating the scholar's own understanding of the nature of the Bible and the purpose of exegesis.

Timothy Kromer employed Wittgenstein's analysis of "language games" as a way of approaching the difficulties inherent in his "reading with" the senior citizens of Emmaus House. Kromer argues that in order to "read with" others effectively, biblical scholars must first be willing to become "bilingual," learning to play the "language games" their readings partners employ in grappling with biblical texts. "Reading with," he argues, is not a casual or short-term endeavor, but a process of developing the cross-cultural competencies required to truly appreciate another's language and life experience.

Josey Bridges applied the insights of her homeless reading partners to challenge Carol Newsom's reading of Job 2-3. Newsom argues that Job's passive acceptance of his fate in Job 2 indicates that he has not really begun to grapple authentically with his loss. Drawing on the work of Dorothee Soelle, Newsom argues that it is only in Job's curse of the day of his birth (Job 3) that he begins the process of healing.[11] In contrast, Bridges notes that her homeless reading partners considered Job 2 the more healing text, since there Job is able to maintain hope in the face of suffering, empowering him to survive for another day. The lamenting Job of chapter 3 offers the homeless no hope and so threatens their very capacity for survival. Thus, Bridges proposes that the guiding principle for biblical interpretation at Central Outreach is what she terms the "hermeneutic of hope"—the only relevant interpretation is one that gives hope for continued survival.

Cody Case raised the question of whether it is possible for "ordinary" readers to be true Subjects in discourse about the biblical text so long as critical scholars retain the right to be critical. He critiques Segovia, West, and others who propose that scholars who "read with" untrained readers should nonetheless retain the critical privilege of determining what meanings are ultimately "right," "valid," or "liberative." Drawing on the work of Foucault and others, Case proposes that if critical scholars truly wish to "read with," we must cede our own measures of what constitutes logical, true, and valid readings. Only when we admit the validity of the interpretations of our reading partners—no matter how bizarre they may seem from our own perspective—do we truly escape colonialist modes in which scholars act as arbiters of "correct" interpretation.

Sarah Smith Rohrer drew on a metaphor from the book of Job to describe the interpretive relationship between "official interpreters" and homeless men. Rohrer notes that the homeless men in her context often identified with the biblical character of Job, having lost their possessions and drifted to the margins of society. Rohrer explores the possibility that "official" interpreters tend to play the role of the three friends to the homeless person's Job, ignoring his interpretation of his own suffering and instead trying to explain it through their own understandings of religious tradition. Perhaps, she suggests, the appropriate role for biblical scholars and religious leaders is to sit quietly in the ash heap and listen to those on the margins as they express their own interpretations of suffering and God.

The academic work produced by the students was, without exception, thoughtful and engaged. The students became personally involved in the teaching of the Bible, developed meaningful relationships with their reading partners, and grappled in tangible ways with questions that are sometimes difficult to grasp in the abstract—such as how meaning may be constructed between reader and text rather than residing in the text itself. The students were challenged to think about pedagogical method and to develop teaching strategies to fit the needs of their contexts. In my estimation, because the students became personally invested in the outcomes of the course, they performed at an exceptionally high level.

The course design also entailed some problem areas that would need to be considered in future versions of the course: (1) Students noted the high workload for the course, which involved three hours in class, one and a half hours in the contextual site, weekly planning, significant reading, and several writing projects. However, when pressed, they acknowledged that none of the assignments could be cut without detriment to the course itself. Perhaps a contextualized course warrants four credit hours rather than three, with the contextual site serving as a kind of "laboratory" exercise. (2) More significantly, students noted that the course provided little opportunity for their own exegetical work on Job. Instead, they moved dialectically between Newsom's interpretation and their reading partners' interpretations, without having opportunity for much of their own text work. In future courses, I would front-load the commentary work into the three weeks of class prior to the contextual sites and then have students do their own exegesis on shorter text segments on a week-to-week basis. (3) A problem inherent in courses of this nature is the possibility of exploiting or exoticizing our reading partners. While we made every effort to develop real relationships with our reading partners, the length of a semester precludes much long-term investment. In my estimation, this problem can be minimized, but not eliminated.

Despite these shortcomings, response to the course was overwhelmingly positive. When reading and interpreting Job, we began to hear the voices of our reading partners—Job began to sound like a homeless man, God like a prison guard, the friends like religious leaders clinging to outmoded formulations of piety, and so on. The value in this transformation is, admittedly, difficult to quantify. But we are all convinced that having studied Job with our respective reading partners, our own understandings of the book are far richer than they had ever been in classroom study alone.[12]

Robert Williamson, Jr., Hendrix College


[1] I have adopted the terms "ordinary reader" and "reading with" from Gerald O. West and Muse Dube,“An Introduction: How We Have Come to 'Read With'," Semeia 73 (1996): 7-17, to whom my own work is clearly indebted.

[2] For a helpful introduction to these paradigm shifts, see Fernando F. Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis 2000), of which the first two essays were included on my syllabus. See also Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds., Reading from this Place (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).

[3] Gerald O. West, ed., Reading Other-Wise: Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with Their Local Communities (SemeiaSt 62; Atlanta: SBL, 2007).

[4] The teaching of this course was made possible through the generosity of the Emory Center for Teaching and Curriculum. The course design benefited greatly from the wisdom of Carol A. Newsom and David O. Jenkins of Emory's Candler School of Theology.

[5] My own interest in contextualized exegesis owes much to Charles L. Campbell and Stanley P. Saunders, who were my teachers at Columbia Theological Seminary. See their The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000; repr. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock).

[6] See especially Carol A. Newsom, "The Book of Job: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections" in The New Interpreters Bible Volume 4 (ed. L. E. Keck, et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 317-637, and idem, The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[7] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th anniv. ed.; New York: Continuum, 2000).

[8] Gerald O. West and Muse Dube, eds., "Reading With": An Exploration of the Interface between Critical and Ordinary Readings of the Bible (Semeia 73; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996); Bob Ekblad, Reading the Bible with the Damned (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Gerald O. West, Reading Other-Wise; idem, The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); and idem, "The Poetry of Job as a Resource for the Articulation of Embodied Lament in the Context of HIV and AIDS in South Africa," in Lamentations in Ancient and Contemporary Contexts (ed. Nancy C. Lee and Carleen Mandolfo; SBLSS; Atlanta: SBL, 2008), forthcoming. My gratitude to Professor West for making this latter text available to my class prior to its publication.

[9] We used Newsom, The Book of Job, as the primary critical resource for this portion of the course.

[10] All student work is cited with permission.

[11] Newsom, "The Book of Job," 371.

[12] My thanks to Amy H. C. Robertson, Cody Case, and K. Parker Diggory for commenting on earlier drafts of this article.

The syllabus for this course can be viewed here.

Citation: Robert Williamson, Jr., "Reading Job from the Margins: Dialogical Exegesis and Theological Education," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2008]. Online:


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