Scripture in Common Usage V: Positive Application II – Scripture as Communal Conversation

August 28, 2013

Scripture has the ability to preserve, pass on, and renew culture, tradition, and group identity like nothing else. In this entry I want to focus on this communal conversation as a major positive application of scripture in common usage. Of course there can be negative aspects to this as well, but we’ve spent much of our time looking at the negative ways scripture is commonly used so we will leave those implications aside for now until we tie all of these scriptural facets together in the final third of this series. For now I want to discuss how scripture as a positive good can craft an identity, establish a community, serve as an on-going discourse to address the needs and concerns of a people, keep that people in touch over long distances of time and geography, and serve as the nexus between the role of “scripture as peacemaker” that was discussed last time and the role of “scripture as meditative redeemer,” which will be discussed in the next entry. [By the way, if you would like to read where the conversation has gone so far, please click the links in the first paragraph of the previous article, linked in the previous sentence]


*Scripture as the clothing of Community

We start with perhaps the prime example of scripture as communal conversation–the Jewish people. With the example of Judaism, text as temple and scripture as ongoing conversation across space and time reaches a pinnacle of example. The primary scripture in Judaism is Torah, and although this primarily refers to the first five books of what Christians commonly call “The Old Testament,” the word “Torah” (or “teaching”) has evolved for Jews to include the rest of the Jewish Bible as well as the post-biblical Rabbinical writings:Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, sometimes even “non-religious” literary and artistic Jewish works of poetry, art, and culture. Biblical Torah itself is inter-conversational–a self-referential dialogue between people and biblical authors across place and time. Judaism has never shied away from continually conversing with, refining, and even arguing with the text itself. Often these conversations with the text become scriptural texts themselves, to which the copious amount of varying viewpoints and differentiation which encircle many a Torah selection on a page of Talmud surely attests. Rabbinical students  throughout history have devoted vast amounts of time and energy to becoming thoroughly versed in the intricacies of the long line of scriptural conversation into which they are stepping into so that they can continue that conversation. They then bring that conversation back to their communities and engage the community itself in entering the conversation as well. The resulting discussion and repercussions from that ongoing conversation may vary–they may reinforce what to outsiders seems like quaint conservation of ancient thought and ritual or invigorate modern communities into rapidly evolving reclaimed revisions which serve progressive and new ends. With the Jewish example, there are clear moments of history in which this scripture as an on-going conversation has ensured the group’s very survival as dispersion across the globe, separation from a shared temple, and waves of recurrent oppression and bloodshed has often forced text to serve as temple–linking a people together and providing them with hope and a shared identity in the face of complete hardship.

Yet Judaism is far from the only example of a group engaging scripture to converse across space and time and to preserve, renew, and refine tradition and culture. The Qur’an is the focus of Muslims everywhere across the globe and in its Arabic recitation it distinctively draws together many disparate cultures and contexts. Whether read in Arabic or translation, memorized and recited personally, or listened to audibly in a host of different inflections, it is a scripture bonding together a people across space and time. It is also a scripture that is dissected and deliberated on by varying schools of interpreters, interpretations of which inspire social mores, laws, and major life decisions. Christianity–whether in Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox orientation–also is a religion in which scripture has played a major role, whether as impetus for the formation of a new denomination (admittedly often as a result of a split over difference of interpretation with the others in a previous group) or renewal of an existing one. Every creed, council, and major decision in Christian history lays claim to at least some scriptural claim and has often been the starting and ending point of any major discussion, position, or decision made by a church. Outside of strict monotheism, scripture is still formative for many people; Tibetan Buddhists enter intense formal debates over monastic texts which serve the role of scripture, Hindus celebrate the televised dramas which reenact the key moments of their holy stories which are told sprawling over a history of scriptural texts, and communities in Asia versed in multiple Eastern religions spin prayer wheels upon which the holy words of their various texts are written.


So you may grant that scripture is an ongoing conversation into which each generation of adherents enters if they continue that conversation onward from their parents. Yet you may still ask how this is a positive good. Yes, that conversation can sometimes serve only to preserve that which may very well be a stifling and restrictive “bad.” Or it can serve to cause a community to set themselves apart in oppressive and prejudiced ways from those outside of their own community in violent ways. These are issues worth pondering another time. Yet in keeping with the position here, that scripture as an ongoing conversation is indeed (or can be) a positive good, I will say it does so as the nexus between serving as a peacemaker and serving as a personal meditative redeemer. I claim that the highest good scripture can do is to inspire active, engaged peacemaking. Scripture as a meditative redeemer can inspire a person to yearn and seek for more, assuage personal troubles and then draw them into a community of conversation. Hopefully, in the right community, that conversation with scripture can accomplish much more than solitary consideration can–thus challenging easy or dangerous misconception or misappropriations, becoming alive in a group in a way that serves as impetus for peacemaking. Peacemaking can be done solo, yet is best and most efficiently done communally–and though communities and groups are certainly capable of heinous conclusions, ideologies, and actions, the hope is that with the right community in line with a long history of recurrent conversation, a safeguard against the worst excesses of scriptural misuse is possible. That of course, is cause for warranted debate, however. The point here though, is that at its best, scripture is an ongoing conversation among a people which provides them with solitary comfort as well as group impetus for positive, peaceful action.

There are many loaded themes which are beginning to emerge as we end this portion; hopefully we will find ways to address some of them as we begin to head into the last portion of this series.



2 Responses to “Scripture in Common Usage V: Positive Application II – Scripture as Communal Conversation”

  1. […] the previous post in this series, we looked at scripture as a communal conversation. I stated that scripture at its best can inspire a group to engage in just peacemaking; I placed […]

  2. […] V. Scripture in Common Usage V: Positive Application II- Scripture as Communal Conversation […]

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