Wednesday, January 15, 2014

the ethics of education and ministry formation

Currently I’m team teaching a summer school topic (Bible and Culture) at Flinders University. It’s the first time in years that we as Adelaide College of Divinity/Uniting College have been able to teach actually on campus at Flinders. It’s a new topic and it’s been great to see Flinders get excited and in behind it.

Of the 17 students enrolled, at least 13 are non-Theology students. Which makes for a very different teaching experience. I’ve heard comments like “Who is Jacob?” when explore the live performances of Bullet the Blue Sky. Or “Did Jesus, if he lived, have long hair? Cos all the pictures say he has.”

In other words, presume nothing.

Yesterday, in preparing for class, I was reading Mieke Bal and her introduction in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible (Library Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies). She begins by noting the place of the Bible in Western culture. “The Bible, as at least partially a religious document, has been formative of Western culture. The culture as it is today carries the Bible with it, as it carries the rest of its founding texts” (page 11). In other words, everyone can be involved in this interpretation of Biblical texts.

Her phrase “founding texts” has stayed with me. Being plural, it suggests other “founding texts.” Obviously other religions have other founding texts – Koran, First Testament – being examples. Thinking about Western culture, it seems to me that nations have “founding texts” not necessarily explicit or cogent, but surely celebrated in events like Australia Day, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day. Equally Western individualism and consumerism are again “founding texts” for our culture.

Bal then argues that the “text is one thing … its meaning is quite a different matter. Meaning … is a property of the act of reading.” (12-13) This then, can be applied to all texts, including all founding texts. So this brings into focus the role of the reader and the audience, who create meanings based on their prior experiences, values and attitudes. (Yes these are shaped by the founding texts, but they still exist separately, individually from the actual texts). She suggests that meaning is dynamic, a process, expressed in the phrase “moments of meaning”, present in both the text as a provider of meaning and the reader reading.

Further, Bal notes that rather than fall into a subjective, all readings are equal, or a imperialist, my reading is better, there still remains ways to question, and critique, ours and others meanings (“readings, without positivistic claims to truth.” (16)). She calls this the “ethical responsibility” of reading, that we need to reflect on how we read, the meanings we create, and their impact on ourselves, others, the earth. Specifically, she refers to the methods we use to read, and the nature of our discourse. Thus “every scholar of texts is a reader in the first place. Acknowledging that status, and accounting for the underlying guiding conventions, is a primary ethical responsibility for all scholars.” (15)

What these ethics might be remains open to question, but for Bal, this need for ethical responsibility keeps alive scholarship and justice.

Finally, Bal suggests that this need for “ethical responsibility” is especially important in relation to founding texts. In other words preaching the Bible. Or how Australia Day is named and practised.

Which helps me make sense of Bible and culture, and, more big picture, the task of education and ministry formation. It is about helping people to read their founding stories ethically. To develop the ability to think about how they use the Bible and it’s impact on others. To consider the discourse we create as we tell the narratives of an Anzac Day or Australia Day. To ponder the effect of individualism on people and planet.

This applies equally to those who use the Bible or who read a pop cultural text. It allows a wide range of people to sit in a class together, becoming more respectful of how to read, methods for reading, the discourse generated.

Such are my ponderings as I taught today, as we explored how U2’s live performance of Bullet the Blue Sky in Chicago was a reading of some founding stories – Jonny comes Marching home today, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Bible’s expression of desolation and lament.

Posted by steve at 09:50 PM


  1. How would the council at Jerusalem fit into a founding document, as an ethical reading of a founding document?

    Comment by Martyn — January 16, 2014 @ 5:43 am

  2. now that’s an intriguing example.

    that raises the question for me – what are the resources used in ethical readings of founding documents. in this case it was people’s experience and testimony, communal engagement and Spirit. that gave them courage in a more creative, more ethical reading


    Comment by steve — January 16, 2014 @ 7:28 am

  3. Also, the songs and stories of indigenous Australians – not documents as such – in South Australia there are still some indigenous people who would be the “first contact” generation – perhaps we have founding stories and documents?

    Was just talking about SA’s founding documents recently – here is a link:

    Jenny B

    Comment by JennyB — January 18, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

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