Edited by Hans de Wit, Louis Jonker, Marleen Kool, Daniel Schipani: Institute of Mennonite Studies with the Free University of Amsterdam, 2004
By Alison Phelps
This book presents the results of a three year research study based on the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4). 120 small groups in 25 countries studied this chapter and observations of the passage as well as details of each group were then exchanged and commented on between contrasting pairs of groups. An amazing amount of the material generated by hundreds of participants has been collected, translated and reflected on in these 500 pages by 23 scholars from five continents. Colombia and the Netherlands dominate as contributing the most groups, a refreshing change for this Western reader!
The editors must be congratulated for bringing coherence to such an ambitious project. I particularly appreciated the way they have organised the essays that does justice both to the broad theological task of the project and to the unique perspective of each writer. There is enough detail of the places and circumstances of each group,(including extracts from the transcripts of real dialogue) as well as sufficient information about the purpose and scale of the whole project to engage the reader intimately in a wide variety of situations while maintaining the global perspective.
It is interesting to notice how many types of different cultures are reading the one Bible chapter for this research. Geographic, political and economic situations obviously shape individual groups, but so also denominational traditions, academic cultures, prison life and age and gender factors are powerful influences. The groups clearly gain much from each other, not merely about ways of understanding the text, but also from realising that the situation of the partner group both helps them to understand another part of the world and to better understand their own. One chapter, entitled 'The eyes of the other as porthole and mirror', neatly expresses this dimension as it explores the communication between a Xhosa speaking South African township regular Bible class and a specially formed, highly educated and affluent Dutch group.
This is not a book to be read from start to finish, but the chapter headings give reasonable signposts to the contents. I found the chapter on 'Codes and coding' the least useful and wished there had been space for including some reflection on the background world events.
One African contribution noted the significance of a concurrent United Nations conference on racism on their discussion. As the destruction of the Twin Towers (11.9.01) took place between the international conference to set up this project (March 2001) and the meeting of the study groups, the publication of this book centring on John 4 is extremely timely in underlining the importance of reading the Bible together in a religiously diverse world.
The book acknowledges that this research points to further possibilities rather than being a finished end in itself. It would be good to see a popular book giving some do's and don'ts for intercultural Bible reading. In the UK we have so many doorstep opportunities for enriching communal study experiences. One disappointment is that the website related to the book is limited (www.bible4all.org). There is transforming truth in these pages for anyone interested in the power of shared Bible study and I hope the project bears the fruit the authors look for as others adapt and develop the ideas presented.