Growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s it was not uncommon to hear someone reply during a conversation with, "Say what?!" The expression signaled disbelief at something just spoken. It may well have been an exclamation calling for clarification. Occasionally the idiom suggested someone just may be out of their minds. "Say what?!" Anyone speaking in/with/to groups large and small knows parsing words is critical to successful communication.
Just more than 10 years ago I read Pew Rights by Roger Van Harn. Hoping to help preachers understand the experience of listening from the "pew," Van Harn’s little book should have been of greater value than the "Sale Table" on which I found it. We who preach tend to think everyone should "get it" just because we "say it." Many times though I sense the look that says, "Say what?!" And just as in those days growing up I am sure some project that in disbelief while others really do want some kind of clarification. We are often impatient in this regard.
Last month Scot McKnight got an early copy of Mark Powell’s, What Did They Hear? and he posted his thoughts on this book in three parts – one, two and three. His thoughts were enough to take me to Amazon and order my own copy so I could read it as soon as it was released earlier this month. I found Powell’s project similar to Van Harn’s. The twist came in the way in which Powell relayed his experiences teaching people in different countries. The anecdotal evidence provided by Powell illustrates we cannot ignore the social context of the reader. We preachers assume everyone comes to the Scripture with the same narratival experiences. Illustrations from Eastern Russia and Tanzania offer helpful reminders of the polyvalent nature of interpretation. Powell does not suggest the meaning of the text is relative. he simply notes how our social location often causes us to fixate on a "sense" of the text that fits our narratives – our social story.
The most remarkable point for me, also mentioned by McKnight, was the reading of Luke 15. I cannot recall ever hearing a reference to the famine noted in Jesus’ telling of the story. Yet, in Eastern Russia famine caught the attention of readers there. Social location and experience influenced the reader when considering the details. The need to work harder at communication is apparent when we consider the varieties of backgrounds represented in a given congregation. I recommend Powell’s book. It is a at least one read that will return a measure of humility to the speaker if he is willing to hear what Powell is saying.