The Common Good
February 2012

The Bible Unbound

by Tim Kumfer | February 2012

Liberating Biblcal Study: Scholarship, Art, and Action in Honor of the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice, edited by Laura Dykstra and Ched Myers.

AS ITS TITLE cleverly suggests, Liberating Biblical Study is a collection with several different aims. First, it seeks to model a way of reading the Bible deeply attuned to political questions, an approach free of uncritical piety on the one hand and intellectual obscurity on the other. Second, it attempts to display the vitality that biblical study can bring to movements for social change.

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If there was ever a group that could pull off such feats, this is it. Movement-rooted biblical scholars Laurel Dykstra and Ched Myers gather here a diverse team of academics, activists, and artists, placing them in dialogue with one another on key biblical themes. Published in celebration of the opening of the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice (located in Stony Point, New York), these chapters bring scriptural imagination to bear on contemporary concerns such as economic equality, ecological restoration, and immigration—and they explore how such concerns have always been central in the struggle to be God’s people.

Among the contributions from biblical scholars, several stand out. Norman Gottwald, whose The Tribes of Yahweh introduced social theory into biblical studies in the late 1970s, here distills his thesis on the historical emergence of Israel as an indigenous revolutionary movement. Gale Yee examines how the theme of creation has been subordinated in Hebrew Bible scholarship and theologies of liberation and explores possibilities for its revival in the book of Hosea. Herman Waetjen, another pioneer of sociopolitical exegesis, sheds light on Matthew’s oft-misunderstood parable of the workers in the vineyard by attending to the economic realities of ancient Palestine. All demonstrate that how we read the Bible matters.

The real-world consequences of biblical interpretation are further explored in the essays from activists. Jennifer Henry describes how a return to the symbol of Jubilee galvanized the Canadian ecumenical movement, deepening its vision of political transformation and drawing in a new constituency to justice work. Bob Ekblad meditates on the new life that Paul’s discussion of law and grace in Romans receives when read with undocumented immigrants in the county jail. Stemming from Hebrews’ injunction to show hospitality to strangers, Alexia Salvatierra explores sanctuary as a biblical response to our broken immigration system.

Peppered throughout the book are poetry, prints, and photographs of nonviolent direct action. These artistic offerings make clear that the work of biblical reflection is a whole-body enterprise. They also illuminate the imaginative leap from the word to our world in a way that study alone cannot. Particularly powerful are Aurora and Ricardo Levins Morales’ poster depicting a modern exodus from oppression and Bud Osborn’s poem on discerning the passion in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.

Tucked in the back of the book is an annotated bibliography compiled by Dykstra of the best books on the Bible and social justice. This list will prove helpful to both newcomers and veterans of socially engaged biblical study.

The book is not a perfect collection. Some of the contributions are stronger than others; a few of the pieces are well over 10 years old. While most of the sections have a dialogical flow, some feel disjointed.

But read as a whole, Liberating Biblical Study begins to cultivate a different way of seeing, one in which the Great Story becomes more deeply our own, often in surprising ways. It aids in our discernment of the ongoing biblical drama of liberation and invites us to join the Spirit’s renewing work out in the streets. Such a bold but humble study is a great gift.

Tim Kumfer is director of the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C., and an editor of inwardoutward.org.

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