'Exegesis can significantly enhance our engagement with the #MeToo movement.'
In a game of 'two truths and one lie', you would be easily forgiven for thinking that this statement was the lie every single time.
I mean let's face it, theology and cutting-edge social movements fighting sexual harassment seem to be worlds apart – and the church hardly has a sparkling record when it comes to women's issues in recent times anyway.
But perhaps this is a genuine way in which theology illuminates a contemporary issue. Exegisis can be of untold value as we (Christian or not) seek to comprehend and contribute to the #MeToo movement. Here are some of our tools.
It may seem a scary word. Yet it is a fundamental task for theologians – and indeed for all Christians. Just before his 1935 expulsion from Germany, Karl Barth addressed his students in a farewell speech: 'And now the end has come. So listen to my final piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis.' Exegesis is important.
Without exegesis, it is nearly impossible to handle the word of God correctly. Like archaeologists in search of artefacts, those involved in exegesis quarry the scriptures (or other texts) in search of their intended meaning. Exegesis is the jackhammer (or feather duster, if you prefer a more delicate example) we use to uncover the initial contexts of our materials – from which we may conclude what they originally communicated.
This makes exegesis the cornerstone of something far bigger than itself: hermeneutics. Equally as intimidating to the outsider as exegesis, 'hermeneutics' actually explains something we all do every day. It is the process of interpretation. Each of us has our own way of interpreting things – our own hermeneutic – and quite often we don't even notice. Our hermeneutic is the prism through which we make sense of the world.
This prism is often intensely personal, shaped by our own learning, prejudices and experiences. Quite naturally and unwittingly, we all engage in hermeneutics every day. Each time we read the news, our minds are furiously formulating opinions based on our pre-conceived ideas and dispositions. Whether we react to issues, and how we react to them, all depends on our hermeneutics. They bear untold influence on our lives.
3. Sitz im Leben
Any DIY expert might tell you that to do a job well, you need all the right tools. That's why we need to introduce ourselves to one final term (and it's a fun one because it's German): 'Sitz im Leben'. Literally this means 'seat in life', and it refers to our social location. The essential idea is that we are influenced by our social surroundings. So, for example, if you grew up in Cornwall then you are not likely to believe that all pasties are created equal (the Cornish ones are best, apparently).
More often than not, this Sitz im Leben deeply informs our understandings of the world and its events. It is the task of the interpreter to firstly be aware of the trappings of their own social location, and secondly to try and work out the Sitz im Leben of the author of their text, determining how great a significance this Sitz bears.
Don't be fooled at this point into thinking that this is all just theological mumbo-jumbo. The complexities of interpretation are deeply embedded into our everyday lives and can devastatingly influence the way that we engage with the world.
If we consider the #MeToo movement for a moment, we may quickly note that its flames of incendiary impatience with injustice are stoked by painfully personal testimonies. As these flames have surged into a rampant wildfire, the movement has had increasingly divisive effects.
From a Christian perspective, this can make the movement very intimidating to engage with. Thankfully with our tools of exegesis, hermeneutics and Sitz im Leben, we, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, can be thrown into the fire of the #MeToodiscussion and emerge unscathed. Not only that, but we may return with precious insights formed and refined by these flames. Here's how:
1. Engaging exegetically
Imagine how rubbish the Parable of the Lost Coin would be if the woman who lost the coin just sat about doing nothing. If you want to investigate anything then you typically have to get out of your chair and get busy. When it comes to #MeToo, we need to do the same. The stories emerging from this movement are intensely personal, deeply distressing and they demand to be taken seriously.
One way to do this is by engaging with them exegetically. We detach ourselves from our own pre-conceptions and situations and consider the accounts as freely as we possible can. We consider them for what they are (not what we think they are), seeking to understand them from the perspectives of the people and positions they are coming from. When we do this, we give proper attention to the victims' stories and let them speak powerfully on their own terms.
2. Re-seating ourselves
If we have done this right, then when we re-seat ourselves in our own lives, we will do so changed (in some way or other). With our impressions from #MeTooaccounts newly embedded in our minds, we may reconsider our own views and situations. How does what we now know affect us? Does it re-shape our hermeneutic or change our convictions? Are there areas in our lives where fresh action is needed?
3. Toned vocals
Of course, exegetically engaging with an issue is not the same as actually experiencing it. We cannot even begin to entertain that notion. The voices of victims must be heard first and foremost. But nonetheless, having so strenuously inquired of #MeToo's stories, we may tentatively foray into discussion of the movement. In all humility we can enter the conversation with confident assurance that what we say is toned by an honest engagement with the topic at hand. People might not listen to us, but what is important is that we engage with integrity, having made full and impartial evaluations before presenting our points of view.
4. Weighing in the light of Scripture
All Christian reflection ultimately centres on the Word of God. So we take what we have learned and examine it under the penetrating light of Scripture. How do these stories fit with what God says? Is there are a corporate and/or personal response that these considerations are calling us to? Might the Body of Christ be mobilised to Godly action in this critical issue? Having done all of our hard excavatory work, we should be better equipped to answer these questions and respond with vigour.
Although we have been dealing in some technical terms, this is not at all an academic exercise. Sexual harassment is as serious as an issue can be, and our approach needs to reflect that. #MeToo gives a much-needed voice to sufferers at the hands of sexual abuse. We would do well to listen to these voices and to listen well. Hopefully some of these tools will help enable that.
Archie Catchpole is a student at London School of Theology.