Know the Word: The Spirituality of Biblical Interpretation

Below are some of the notes and quotes from my introduction to biblical workshops for the ‘Table Spirituality’ unit I taught recently with Simon Holt for Whitley College.  It includes key elements of the ‘hermeneutic’ (way of interpreting Scripture) that has been significant within the Urban Seed/ Seeds Network journey.

1.The approach of William Stringfellow,

2. The idea of the ‘Economy of God’ articulated by Ched Myers and Wendell Berry, a window into a ‘socio-political’ approach.

3. The approach of Clarence Jordan and the Cotton Patch Versions of the Gospel

4. The Circles of Story:  A window into a ‘narrative/literay’ approach.

The theological exploration of biography or the theological reconnaissance of history are apt, and even normative, styles because each is congruent with the definitive New Testament insight and instruction: the Incarnation… biography (and history), any biography and every biography, is inherently theological in the sense that it contains already – literally by virtue of the incarnation – the news of the gospel whether or not anyone discerns that.

        We are each one of us parables.

 William Stringfellow : A Simplicity of Faith

The Streets, the Powers, and the Word: Learning from William Stringfellow 

Charles L. Campbell: Interpretation 51 (October 1997)

  • Principalities and Powers
  • Resistance and Hope
  • Busyness and Slowing in order to become apprentices of those who are poor, homeless, imprisoned, or abused
  • Reading the Bible on the Streets

I spend most of my life now with the Bible, reading or more precisely, listening.  My mundane involvements- practicing law, being attentive to the news of the moment, lecturing around the country, free-lance pastoral counseling, writing, activity in church politics, maintaining my medical regime, doing chores around my home on Block Island – have become more and more intertwined with this major preoccupation of mine, so that I can no longer readily separate the one from the others.  This merging for me of almost everything into a biblical scheme of living occurs because the data of the Bible and one’s existence in common history is characteristically similar. One comes, after a while, to live in a continuing biblical context and so is spared both an artificial compartmentalization of one’s person and a false pietism in living.

Wiiliam Stringfellow: Instead of Death 1976

  • Communities of Resistance & Hospitality;
  • Preaching as exposing the powers through clear speech or burlesque;
  • Preaching as en-visioning alternatives,
  • Preaching as ‘common sense’ shattering hope in the face of death.
A great new book giving an overview of Stringfellow’s life and thought is Alien in a Strange Land:  Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow by Anthony Dancer with foreword by Rowan Williams. 


…is an attempt at capturing for our contemporary context something of the subversive power that ‘the Kingdom of God’, the central image of Jesus’ teachings, had in a world of real kings and kingdoms.

The biblical understanding of “economy” is grounded in the ancient Hebrew spiritual exercise of ‘keeping Sabbath’. It is neither solely material nor spiritual, but extends to encompass all aspects of what it means to produce and consume as a human being in complex relationships.

Beyond money, this economy includes elements of time, of energy, of work and of re-creation, of relationship with the spiritual, the created order and other people.

Embracing the economy of God involves a realisation that abundant grace underpins an ethic of redistribution of enough that is the only way out of the spiritual and material slavery that is so characteristic of the dominant economy of our world.

The Great Economy/Kingdom of God…

1. Includes Everything

2. Has an Order:  Everything is joined and connected to the Economy and each other.

3. This Order is greater than what we can every fully know.

4. Presuming or violating the Order has severe penalties.

5. We Cannot foresee an end to it.

‘The Two Economies’ (1983) in The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 2002

Ched Myer’s does a great overview and critique of different attempts to re-contextualise and re-frame what the Kingdom of God may mean in different cultural and economic contexts in his book ‘Who Will Roll Away the Stone”, Orbis Books, 1994

CONTEXTUAL RE-WRITES/ TARGUMS: Clarence Jordan & Cotton Patch Quotes from the introduction to Paul’s Epistles, Cotton Patch Version:

Translating Events of Scripture, not just Words. “Translations have left us stranded in some faraway land in the long-distant past. We need to have it come in our tongue and our time. We want to be participants in the faith not merely spectators. In the story of the Good Samaritan, we need to participate in the story, so we change Jerusalem and Jericho to New York to Boston, or our hometown to the next. Change the setting from 1st century Palestine to 20th century America.”

Social and Physical Location: Jordan determined to take the Scriptures out of… “the classroom and stained glass sanctuary and put them out under God’s skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering, where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where alone they feel at home.”…”the locale of these letters [i.e., translated ones, not original ones] is the South. Cotton has figured prominently in the problems of this region—problems to which the letters eloquently and pointedly and compassionately speak.”

Call to Action:Speaking of working together at Koinonia Farm in southwest Georgia… 

“like their predecessors in the Bible, humble people, I have longed to share God’s word with them. So in making the translation, I have kept in mind the little people of great faith who want to do better in their discipleship but have been hindered by big words they don’t understand or by ancient concepts they don’t grasp.”

Some insisted to Jordan that his translation was not “elegant, dignified, or even nice.” He has let the earthy NT participants speak for themselves, which is why he used “hell no” and “damned bastard.” He said there was no overt “intent to shock, offend, or startle—or please—anyone.” He did not want to shield anyone from the blunt, vigorous language of the book.

We must learn to read beneath the words, between the lines, attuned to what the ancient Rabbi’s called the ‘white fire‘of the blank spaces as well as the ‘black fire’ of the words.  –   William O’Brien


Ingredients to help us enter the overlapping zone of discipleship imagination, inspiration and transformation where the Word becomes Flesh amongst us…


Behind the Text: Event > Text

Historical, Social Science, Form, Source, Redaction Criticism.

Within Text:

Textual, Translation Theory, Canonical, Rhetorical, Narrative, Structural, Post Structural Criticism

In Front of Text:  Text > Reader

Reception History, Theological Interpretation, Reader Response, Feminist, Queer, Liberation, Socio-political, Black, Postcolonial, Asian, Ecological Criticism

Paula Gooder, Searching for Meaning:  An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testatment SPCK, 2008


A variety of communities is envisages:




Local area



Economic, social, cultural, political and religious worlds

Principalities and Powers, Spirit / Signs of the times

Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape our Lives, by Wilkens and Sanford 1.Individualism, 2.Consumerism, 3. Nationalism, 4. Relativism, 5. Naturalism, 6. New Age, 7. Postmodern Tribes, 8. Therapy


Centre/Margins – Songlines Mapping Exercises

Exposure walks

Analysing texts

Theatre of Oppressed: Augusto Boal

Community Profiles/ Surveys

Tracing products to their source

Newspaper / Cartoon / Pop Culture analysis


Personality Tests: Myers Briggs, Enneagram

Family Graphing/ Gena-gram/ Cultural Mapping

Narrative Therapy: Michael White:  You are a parable!


One Reply to “Know the Word: The Spirituality of Biblical Interpretation”

  1. ON Clarence Jordan: I’m glad you found this wondrous translator. I have a musical which sets his text to music by Harry Chapin (a bit 80s and very country, but still quite good). I wrote an essay on him for a unit in Contextualisation which the lecturer hated – I didn’t care, i think he epitomises it. I often check his translation for a fresh interpretation of passages – he at times is quite radical, for eg Phil 3:20-21, Conventional translation: ‘Our citizenship is in heaven from which als we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord JC who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of his glory, by the power he has to subject all things to himself.’
    Jordan’s translation: “For our church fellowship is a spiritual thing, out of which we constantly expect the deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble little group into a form resembling his own glorious body, by means of the inner working which enables him to captivate everybody.”

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