All Preachers Have a Social Location

Winfred Neely
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Every generation has a story.
Every ethnic group has a story.
Every culture has a story.
Every family has a story.
Every person has a story.

Human beings are storied creatures, and having a story is an essential element of what it means to be human, to be a person created in God’s image.

Embedded in all of our stories is the impact of key people (parents, relatives, close friends, mentors, influencers, leaders, abusers, oppressors, and so on) and key events (praying with your mother or father, affirming moments from a friend, physical abuse, rape, terrorist attacks, and more), key people and key events that have shaped us and molded us for good or for ill.

“Human beings are storied creatures, and having a story is an essential element of what it means to be human, to be a person created in God’s image.”

Embedded in all of our stories are scripts—that is, patterns of behavior with expectations about roles and conduct in various life situations. We learned, acquired, and internalized these patterns of behavior and scripts because we are members of a family, a culture, an ethnic group, or citizens of political entities such as the United States, France, Senegal, or Ghana. In discussing how we acquire scripts, Linda Kay Jones writes:

We learn, or grow into, identifying patterns in human behavior. We learn certain scripts just by being human. Other scripts we learn as members of our culture. (And of course this culture idea can be extended into any little subculture group that a person may belong to, in which the person learns the scripts of that subculture.)[1]

And beyond the horizon of our individual and familial narratives and scripts, the mental life, generational scripts, and perspectives of entire generations have been shaped by key events and key people. The World War 2 generation of Europe and the United States;[2] the Jewish holocaust survivors; the post-September 11, 2001, generation; and Generation Z, shaped and molded by the American great recession of 2008, serve as examples of this phenomenon.

As a result of our stories, and all of the experiences in life that make up the warp and woof of our stories, each one of us has what Jeannine Brown calls “an interpretive location.”[3] She employs the spatial metaphor of “location” as the cultural, social, and experiential place from which we construe the world and vantage point from which we interpret life, people, and texts, including the Bible. This metaphorical “location” is our entire perspective and the limit of our cognitive horizon from which we view the world. All of us bring all we are to the interpretive table of life and texts. In short, every one of has an interpretive location. We are not neutral.

Thus, one of the first steps in our study of Scripture is to acknowledge that we have a social location. This step is important because our interpretive locations and cultural scripts shape how we interpret and misinterpret life. Moreover, and more fundamentally, our interpretive faculty itself is fallen and as a result we come to texts with warped horizons with the propensity to twist reality into our own image. Therefore, a chastened hermeneutic of humility is always in order when we interpret life, culture, texts, and the Bible.[4] Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us:

In an age that views interpretation in terms of violence and coercion . . . charity is needed more than ever. There is something in the text that is not of the reader’s own making. The . . . reader must not violate but venerate this “other.” For readers come not only to knowledge but also to self-knowledge when they allow the text to have its say.[5]

The recognition that we all have an interpretive location prepares us to be better readers of Scripture and should move us to study Scripture with an attitude of humility. While all of us have a defective interpretive faculty, our interpretive location, which is the product of culture and experience, may hinder us from noticing or paying closer attention to some aspects of Scripture or may give us blind spots. For example, in her book Scripture as Communication, Jeannine K. Brown, writes:

I am Caucasian and from a middle-class white-collar economic and educational sector of society. As a result, I have enjoyed the social advantages and power of being in what has been the majority culture in this country. . . . One way my social location has affected how I read the Bible is the rather large blind spot I have inherited and preserved related to wealth. This blind spot has caused me to neglect the pointed biblical emphasis on God’s care for and championing of the poor and the frequent warnings about the dangers of wealth.[6]

It is important to note that Brown’s blind spot in her own words was inherited and was a product of her upbringing. Interpretive faculty and interpretive location are not the same, but they are related.

Indeed, our interpretive location may make us more sensitive than others to elements of biblical truth that others may miss or may not appreciate as much as we do. For example, Brown also notes:

My family of origin, my gender, my familial roles as wife and mother, being a musician, my earlier career in a social service field, as well as the events I have experienced in my life thus far—all these and more influence my interpretive vantage point. Becoming a parent for me had profound theological impact, as I was swept up in a love for my children that gave me a new appreciation for God’s love.[7]

Since all Christ followers have an interpretive location, and since all of us may have blind spots or experiences that may make us more sensitive to aspects of scriptural truth that others with different experiences may miss, we need one another as we grow in our knowledge of God based on His Word. In this chapter, therefore, our consideration of the hermeneutics of the African American expositor of Scripture is not a discussion limited to the African American experience, but a discussion that is beneficial to the entire body of Christ.

[1] Linda Kay Jones, Theme in English Expository Discourse (Lake Bluff, IL: Jupiter Press, 1977), 117.

[2] During World War II, African American soldiers were treated with respect and dignity by Europeans. With their mental horizons expanded and altered as a result of their experience in the war, these veterans returned to the United States determined to no longer accept second-class citizenship in their own country. This alteration of their mental horizon was one the catalytic factors in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

[3] Jeannine K. Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermneutics (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 121–22.

[4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 32, declares, “Life together is largely interpretation; good hermeneutics makes good neighbors. The Golden Rule, for hermeneutics and ethics alike, is to treat significant others—texts, persons, God—with love and respect” (emphasis added).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brown, Scripture as Communication, 122.

[7] Ibid.

For Further Reading:

Say It!

by Eric C. Redmond

Say It! A Celebration of Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition argues that Biblical Exposition is most dynamic when coupled...

book cover for Say It!