Dutch scholar emphasizes reading Bible with “the other”

Published: March 15, 2017

Theological Lectureship guest Hans de Wit focuses on intercultural Bible reading

By Rich Preheim for AMBS

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Mary Magdalene’s Easter discovery of the empty tomb is the greatest news possible for Christians. But for one group of Peruvians studying the account in John 20, it came shrouded in tragedy and terror.

Thousands of people “disappeared” in the 1980s and ’90s, when the country was devastated by armed conflict between government forces and insurgent groups. That left countless families and friends, including the Bible study group, echoing Mary’s question: “Where have they taken our loved one?”

“Before we could think about the text rationally, we felt the pain and brokenness behind the text,” said Dutch scholar Hans de Wit, one of the Bible study’s organizers and this year’s Theological Lectureship presenter March 2–3 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana.

The Peruvians were participants in an international project on intercultural reading of the Bible, which de Wit helped pioneer. Now professor emeritus of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, de Wit gave three lectures at AMBS on the importance of all people joining in biblical discernment. It’s a process that can turn the printed word into “sacred Scripture,” he said, encouraging his listeners to consider “a hermeneutic of hospitality and dependence.”

“To grasp the fullness of divine revelation, we need ‘the other,’” he said.

A native of the Netherlands, de Wit became interested in how culture affects biblical understanding while serving in Chile as a Reformed mission worker from 1980 to 1989, when dictator Augusto Pinochet brutally ruled the country. During that time, de Wit said he began to wonder if victims and oppressors could read the Bible together.

At the Free University of Amsterdam after his return, he pursued his growing interest in intercultural reading of the Bible. In 2000, he and three colleagues organized an unprecedented initiative involving some 120 groups in 21 countries across five continents. The groups, made up of “ordinary” readers, Bible teachers, pastors and scholars from a range of religious traditions and socio-economic contexts, all studied the account of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Each group was partnered with another and exchanged reports — some several times — of their understandings of the passage. When completed, the project produced more than 2,000 pages of reports.

“The greatest joy was to read those reports … and discover in every report a new element of the text,” de Wit recalled. “How strange that more than 200 years of professional and scientific exegesis never included the major part of those who read the Bible — the ordinary readers.”

The findings from the project were compiled in 2005 in a book, Through the Eyes of Another: Intercultural Reading of the Bible, published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies at AMBS and the Free University of Amsterdam. A four-member team edited the book, including de Wit and Daniel Schipani, AMBS professor of pastoral care and counseling.

De Wit has directed a number of other such projects. His current intercultural Bible reading initiative links 20 Indigenous groups throughout Latin America.

He said marginalized people often read the Bible “as a letter addressed to them.” One project centered on Amnon’s rape of his half-sister, Tamar, as found in 2 Samuel 13. A reading group of drug addicts in Amsterdam strongly identified with the woman, declaring, “We are all Tamar.” They were all too familiar with the story’s account of abuse, violence and familial dysfunction.

“They read the text in the present,” de Wit said. “They saw the evil of the offenders, and they identified with the victim.”

White, middle-class and educated Western readers, meanwhile, are prone to read the Bible “as a relic of the past” and often cannot personally identify with its stories. Incorporating the insights of oppressed Peruvians, Dutch addicts and other groups not only complements prevailing Western understandings but offers a corrective, according to de Wit.

“We think we’re the only ones entitled to validate this or that,” he said, noting that expanding the number of participants and perspectives can be threatening to those who have long dominated biblical interpretation, such as Western scholars.

“Power and reading are intimately connected,” he said. “And power doesn’t like to be dismantled.”

Openness to differing perspectives requires motivation, vulnerability, a greater emphasis on process and relationships, and a tolerance of ambiguity by everyone, de Wit said. For example, he told of Latin Americans asking him what he believed about same-sex sexual relationships. He cautioned against claiming, “I am the ultimate owner of [a particular] meaning,” which doesn’t welcome “the other” and prevents listening to their insights.

The process of extending hospitality to other understandings, de Wit said, can turn Scripture into an agent of reconciliation. It can be a weapon against xenophobia. “There will be no reconciliation if there is no interaction,” he said.

While white, Western Christians can learn much from non-Western readers, benefits can flow the other way, too. For their reading of the Samaritan woman at the well, a group of women of all ages in El Salvador was paired with a Dutch group of women in their 70s and 80s. De Wit said the Salvadorans were inspired by their partners’ willingness to still work at Bible study at their ages.

In addition to the lectures, de Wit, along with AMBS faculty members Schipani and Mary Schertz, led a March 4 Church Leadership Center workshop on intercultural Bible reading in the congregation, focusing on the parable of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18.

“No one is the owner of biblical revelation,” de Wit said. “The Bible is a book for all of us.”


(Photos by Annette Brill Bergstresser)

Sungbin Kim, 2nd-year MDiv student from South Korea, poses a question to presenter Dr. Hans de Wit during the AMBS Theological Lectureship.

AMBS faculty and students were invited to join Dr. Hans de Wit and his spouse, Nancy, over lunch during AMBS’s Theological Lectureship on March 2.

Participants in AMBS’s Theological Lectureship visit with guest Dr. Hans de Wit and his spouse, Nancy, during a break on March 2. (l. to r.) Benjamin Krauss, MDiv student from Germany; Nancy Bernal Gamboa; Janna Hunter-Bowman, assistant professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics; Dr. de Wit; and Loren Johns, professor of New Testament.

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