“You should get your Master’s degree outside the South.” I still hear Dr. Soden’s advice as though yesterday, though 24 years ago. These words remind me of how accommodating we are when it comes to our surroundings. I stayed in the “South” and earned two more degrees.
During a conference for post-graduates at SWBTS in the late 1990’s, I listened to Tom Long and Thomas Oden. Reading the Scripture had been a “flat” experience. That is, despite a recognition there were different genres in the Bible, I had been taught to apply a rigid hermeneutic across the various literary types. Such a practice made the Epistles more attractive to preach from. The Gospels would fall next in line. Long challenged preachers to take full account of the literary types and the impact the differing genres should have on the practice of preaching. I bought his little book, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. At once my mind raced to the course in Hebrew poetry in college and I realized the richness of the forms drew attention to the diversity of the one message of God’s Good News. My reading and my preaching would not be the same.
Thomas Oden represented something of a coup for the “right.” An admitted liberal scholar who had something of a “conversion” experience moved to the center. At the same time, Oden could help those myopically centered in one tradition hear the good in others. It was as if a new set of eyes could help some see where they had neglected important matters. I would begin to place less importance on books published by those who shared my “Southern Christian” experience and look for those eyes which would help me to see what we too often miss when our “version” dominates and we calcify it as “the” version for all time.
Today we still suffer from colloquial expressions of the faith. We fear anyone who draws attention to both the old ways and new ways. We are still captive to the cultural expression of our faith unless in some way jarred to look at it again.
I read Try your left hand by Keith Johnson and felt a kinship with his experience. I sensed clearly how the church in the South, and certainly in the West even AmericaWest, may have forgotten its left hand. While Johnson describes the richness of the Hebrew culture and the rituals and practices prior to the 2nd Century among Christians, we may easily draw comparisons the run much wider than the recovery of one segment of Christian history.
We have faced a similar captivity when we hear some suggest “real” church history began with the Reformation. There is little difference between being captive to a Southern Culture, a 16th Century movement, or the various Empires under which Christianity either thrived or struggled. We need to try our left hand, often.