Upon arrival, before so much as a word to anyone, he sets out to get the lay of the land. Walking the streets, inspecting shops, reading signs, chatting with folks: listening, observing, and taking it all in with a keen eye and ear to what makes the locals itch.
That’s the key, of course, finding out what makes them itch, what discomfort or dissatisfaction or desire he can exploit, a chink in their aloof armor, into which he can wield his appeal.
Then he sees it and he knows it’s his way in. They may not recognize the significance right away but once he draws them in and exposes this insidious gap in their carefully examined world – he’s got em primed for the pitch!
As soon as the brand new pool table came into his view, Professor Harold Hill knew that his community exegesis had just hit pay dirt.
It’s becoming a buzz-word in the church world: community exegesis. In short, you gotta know the territory!
Any seminarian knows, and often dreads, the word: exegesis. It literally means “critically examined” and is often applied to literature and especially, but not exclusively, to the Bible. The purpose is to mine truth; truth for our lives. We can exegete any text that holds value and purpose and people in seminary spend a huge amount of time doing just that.
Here’s a sample:
Think of any book that has meaning for you – doesn’t have to be a sacred text and fiction is fine. If you’re doing this with the Bible, you’re likely thinking of a particular passage.
Ask yourself a few questions:
- First of all, are there any problems with the text – are there ambiguous words or words that don’t seem to fit?
- Where does the passage fit relative to the rest of the book? Is it a comment, or an aside – or does it keep the plot moving or develop a character?
- What kind of writing is it? Prose? Poetry? Narrative? Conversation?
- When was the passage written? What time period is it set in?
- What’s the social, political, or cultural context?
Yet the gist of the process is to look more closely, to listen to the text and the author and the story with unvarnished senses, to, as much as possible, check your preconceived notions at the door and be open to the unexpected, seeking perhaps, to engage on a personal and direct level.
· As you stand just outside your house or apartment or church, what do you see as you look in each direction? What do you hear or sense? What activity do you notice?
· As you walk the community, what do you notice about the architecture of the houses or buildings? On average, how old do you think they are? How much renovation or rebuilding is going on?
· Does your community feel like a cared-for place?
· What indicators of transience do you observe? Does the community have a feeling of permanence or change?
· Is there a freeway or major highway close by? If so, try and imagine this area before it existed. Who has gained and lost by its introduction?
· Stop—sit if you can—what are the smells and sounds of the community? How quiet or noisy is it?
· What public spaces are provided for children, teenagers or adults? Are they being used? If so, in what ways?
· Do you pass any churches or religious buildings? What does their design or appearance communicate to you?
· Imagine yourself as an old, infirm person with no car, or as a young child living in the middle of this community. How disadvantaged or advantaged would you be with respect to shops, churches, parks or schools?
· Are there places in your community that you wouldn’t go? Why?
· Where are the places of life, hope, or beauty in this community?
· What evidence of struggle, despair, neglect and alienation do you see?
· What sense of connection do you feel to your community as you walk though it?
· In what ways do you sense God’s presence where you live?
“The Music Man” wasn’t looking for God, necessarily, although Professor Hill did end up with Marian the Librarian and, one can assume, a transformed life; but the Apostle Paul did have a divine purpose as he did his community exegesis in Athens, and, without reducing the Book of Acts to a saccharin bit of musical theater, I do hold that the processes of Harold Hill and Paul of Tarsus were remarkably similar: Walking the streets, inspecting shops, reading signs, maybe chatting with a few folks: listening, observing, taking it all in with a keen eye and ear to what makes the locals itch.
Paul’s answer to Harold Hill’s troubling pool table was the all-purpose monument to the “unknown god” he discovered while walking Athens.
Paul knew this because he did his community exegesis:
"Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god. '”
Rather than condemn the Athenians, Paul acknowledged the well-spring out of which the panoply of worship poured.
Rather than dismantling the religions of Athens, Paul affirmed their quest.
Rather than scoffing at their misdirected reach, he underscored the reality of spiritual intuition that drove them beyond the gods they knew toward the unknown god for which they groped.
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
It hard for me to get my head around an “infinite abyss” but I do understand an itch. Blaise Pascal may be smarter, but I’ll stick with the sadder but wiser Professor Hill.
What’s the itch?
Everyone walked into this room this morning to satisfy an itch.
An itch to make music – to sing or perform.
An itch to see your children in church.
An itch to satisfy a sense of duty or habit or rut.
An itch to be entertained.
An itch to be with friends.
An itch to hear or say something that inspires or challenges or teaches or provokes.
An itch to explore spirituality.
An itch to confess.
An itch to be forgiven.
An itch to plead or pray or praise.
An itch to sense God’s presence.
An itch to explore a world other than your own.
An itch to hear a story that might change you.
An itch to find your purpose or calling or service.
An itch to be with people want to know you, who care about you.
An itch to connect.
An itch to know again and again that you are fully known, fully loved, and fully claimed by God.
I’d challenge you – even today – to practice a little community exegesis. If you think you know your neighborhood inside and out – come downtown and exegete First & Central’s. You decide the boundaries based upon your understanding of the city, your comfort level, and your sense of what church is. Text me or email me – now – and I’ll reply with a simple one-sheet pdf of instructions for an exegetical walk. Pick a place, any place, and try it.
Then send your impressions, reactions, surprises, disappointments, or joys at what you found and we’ll share them – take a walk with your family, your partner, friend, your spouse, your parent, your dog – and do a little community exegesis. You may be surprised at what you see that you didn’t know was there. You gotta know the people and you gotta know the territory!
This would be a fun little homework assignment if we just left it there but alas, if we’re going to be faithful exegetes of the biblical text, we have to take one more step.
After Paul introduced the Athenians to the unknown God for whom they were groping – the creator of heaven and earth, the one in whom we live and move have our being, Paul brings the Athenians face to face with a decision:
Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this."
So…my only hope and my most fervent prayer is that you will decide to “hear again about this” because I assure you…we’ll be talking again about this!