“I don’t like the apostle Paul.”
The assertion came after reading one of the particularly thorny and hard-hitting passages from one of Paul’s epistles. Scanning the room, I could see shocked expressions on a few students’ faces, as if to ask, “Is he allowed to say that in Bible class?” Other students gave concerned glances in my direction that urged me: “You better set him straight, Mr. VanderWerf.” But others subtly nodded their heads with tentative agreement silently suggesting: “We have some questions about what Paul is saying here, too.”
I knew my response was likely going to set the tone for the rest of the class, perhaps even the semester.
“Tell me more,” I said. “Why do you think that?”
I listened to the student’s concerns, and the student, in turn, listened to me as I tried to explain some of the historic and cultural background that may have shaped Paul’s statements. By the end of our discussion, I asked the class how the conversation would have been different if the apostle Paul could have joined us in person over a shared meal. The class agreed: we all would have been more gracious, more curious, more kind, more understanding—in a word, more hospitable. To celebrate the unplanned moment of classroom discovery, we pledged to have a “Pauline Potluck.” The students all brought food to share and I role-played the character of Paul. We ate, we laughed, and we learned a bit more about Paul, and I hope we learned a bit more about being hospitable.
[T]wo interconnected learning goals that I have for all of my Bible classes: to develop skills of hermeneutics and to practice hospitality.
This brief anecdote from my classroom illustrates two interconnected learning goals that I have for all of my Bible classes: to develop skills of hermeneutics and to practice hospitality. In this essay, I want to share how these two important concepts are related and give examples of what this could look like from my own classroom experience and from my work with the Civic Hospitality Project.
Hermeneutics and Hospitality
“Herman who?” That’s how some of my students respond when they first hear the technical term hermeneutics. But hermeneutics, put simply, is the “science and art of biblical interpretation” (Virkler 16). Reading, understanding, and applying the Bible can be challenging. Some verses appear crystal clear: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Other passages, however, are trickier: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Even the crystal-clear passages are often more multifaceted than we see at first glance. What does it suggest that the Greek word for “world” in John 3:16 is “cosmos”? What does that suggest about who or what is the object of God’s love? How did first-century Jews understand the concept of eternal life? Good Bible reading requires a good deal of curiosity.
Hermeneutics helps the Bible reader pay attention to the historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary backgrounds of a text in order to better understand what the text meant when it was originally written and how the text can be applied in our particular context.
Hermeneutics helps the Bible reader pay attention to the historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary backgrounds of a text in order to better understand what the text meant when it was originally written and how the text can be applied in our particular context. When it is done well, hermeneutics doesn’t explain away difficult Bible passages or simply dismiss hard teachings when they contradict our cultural norms, but it helps us understand why a text says what it does.
This is what I want all my students to learn while in my Bible classes. I want them to be curious about the biblical text; I want them to ask questions of the text to better understand it, and when they come across challenging passages, I don’t want them to simply explain it away or dismiss it if they don’t particularly like it. I want them to do this because I want them to be good at hermeneutics, but I also want them to be good humans—and that requires hospitality.
So how does hermeneutics relate to hospitality?
Just as the practice of hermeneutics helps my students be curious about the biblical text, it can also help them be curious about the people all around them.
Mark VanderWerf (MDiv, MEd) teaches Bible at Grand Rapids Christian High school where he also serves as chaplain. Previously, he taught history and literature at Calvin Christian High School in Escondido, California. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church.