The Hermeneutics of Incarnational Evangelism: Reading the Gospel with Peruvians

Keon Sang-An Illustration by Denise KlitsieFor over six years, my wife and I read the Gospel of Mark with every Peruvian who was willing, one-on-one or in small groups. This wasn’t the sum of our mission team’s work in Arequipa, Peru, but it was our primary approach to evangelism. I hesitate to frame our practice of Bible reading with reference to the word evangelism, because the term evangelism needs badly to be freed from the verbal, informational, and cognitive biases that have dominated its use in Christian mission. Proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God is a word-and-deed endeavor, and that is what I mean by evangelism. For our team, the “word” dimension of evangelism focused on reading the Gospel of Mark as gospel, and the deed dimension focused on reading with Peruvians seeking God’s kingdom and justice. These two dimensions, summarized as reading with, constitute a practice I would identify as “incarnational evangelism.”1

Reading with kingdom seekers is a deeply formative experience, not least hermeneutically. The formative effects of “reading with” have already been highlighted by some streams of liberation hermeneutics focused on the “ordinary reader.” South African biblical scholar Gerald West, in particular, insists that “‘reading with’ others in contexts where we also work with them remakes us. Work (not conversation over coffee, but collaboration in particular sites of struggle) with groups who have been differently constituted exposes us to some of the forces and factors that have constituted them and enables us to be partially constituted by them.”2 This sort of reading with as reading in solidarity resonates deeply with my experience of incarnational evangelism.

Yet West’s work has a couple of important limitations. First, West consistently speaks of the other as a believer. This is natural enough if one assumes that no one except the church should be interested in reading the Bible. But shouldn’t the practice of evangelism shape the imagination and the hermeneutical strategies of the church? If so, there is obviously a space in which to imagine the reading of Scripture with the other who is not a believer. The author who comes nearest to extending the insights of liberation hermeneutics in this direction is Bob Ekblad, who writes about reading with the “not-yet-believing” other, primarily in a prison context.3 Ekblad’s concern, however, is the liberation of the other, not the hermeneutical formation of the Christian who reads with the other. This brings me to West’s second limitation: he discusses the formative effects of reading with only in relation to the transformation experienced by the scholar. The “ordinary readers” with whom West impels scholars to read are members of the church (i.e., believers). The hermeneutical practice of reading with is a scholarly concern, not a practice of the church. The hermeneutical formation of the church as readers, therefore, is not in view.

In light of my experiences in Peru, however, West’s liberation hermeneutic invites an intriguing question: What are the formative effects of incarnational evangelism as an ecclesial practice? I put the question this broadlyrather than asking only about the “missionary” practice of evangelismbecause I work at the intersection of missional theology and theological interpretation of Scripture, an interdisciplinary space called missional hermeneutics.4 To borrow Richard Hays’s definition, “Theological exegesis is a complex practice, a way of approaching Scripture with eyes of faith and seeking to understand it within the community of faith.”5 In other words, theological interpretation has to do with reading Scripture as the church, assuming the church’s theological commitmentsespecially the hermeneutically formative effects of those commitments. So, my working assumptions are that theological interpretation of Scripture is the concern of all the people of God (not just scholars) and that, from a missional perspective, all the people of God are by nature participants in God’s mission. In tandem, these affirmations render implications that scholars have in recent years begun to explore.6 Yet, for a variety of reasons that I don’t have space to discuss, even missional hermeneutics typically (and ironically!) ignores evangelism. So I will restate the question more sharply: Should the approaches to Scripture collectively identified as theological interpretation count incarnational evangelism among the ecclesial practices that normally shape readers?

The rest of this essay makes a general claim by way of a specific example. The general claim is this: As an ecclesial practice of incarnational evangelism, reading Scripture with kingdom seekers forms the church for theological interpretation. The specific example is my experience of reading the Gospel of Mark with Peruvians. In this example, the practice has some particular features, including the narrative dynamics of taking a Gospel as gospel and the intercultural dynamics of reading with Peruvians as a “gringo.”

Before considering these dynamics, I should say a bit more about the term “incarnational evangelism.” J. Todd Billings’s recent diatribe against “incarnational ministry”7 makes it prudent to clarify what I do and do not mean by incarnational. I do not mean that incarnational evangelism could somehow “perform another incarnation,” nor do I intend to deny the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation (Billings). Nor, by analogy, do I think that taking up the cross (Mark 8:34) could somehow duplicate the unique crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus made his cruciform example the grounds for his teaching on servant leadership: “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). But Jesus did not seem to think that by imitating his example his followers would risk seeing themselves as the ransom for many. So words like “incarnational” and “cruciform” are useful for designating important theological dimensions of the imitatio Christi. In regard to the incarnation, the imitation of Christ is not the attempt to “imitate the act of becoming incarnate,” as Billings characterizes it. Imitatio Christi is, instead, the imitation of Jesus’s way of entering the particularity and experience of the other—an imitation justified precisely because Jesus is the uniquely incarnate Christ.

The problem with incarnational evangelism is not, as Billings believes, that it somehow screens out union with Christ or participation in the Spirit’s work. I strongly affirm both of those realities and see them as dimensions of a robust missional theology in which incarnational evangelism also plays a part. The problem with incarnational evangelism, rather, is the limit of our ability to identify with the other. José Miguez Bonino observes, for example, that when we make lifestyle choices in order to “place ourselves” in a different relation to the pooreven if we go so far as to “assume the condition of the poor”“this does not make us poor in the full sense of the experience. There is no total ‘kenosis’ possible for human beings.”8 The same is true of culture.9 The admission of such limitations is not, however, a denial of the possibility of any Christlike self-emptying or self-denial. We still have choices to make: Will we place ourselves, insofar as we are able, into the particularity of the other? Will we live in solidarity with the other? For the evangelistic practice of reading Scripture with kingdom seekers, then, the question is whether reading with means merely reading together or, incarnationally, reading in the humility, service, and solidarity by which one comes into the particularity and experience of the other.

Keon Sang-An Illustration by Denise Klitsie (3)READING A GOSPEL AS EVANGELISM
Now I come to the dynamics of taking a Gospel as gospel. On the face of it, Mark is “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). In this sense, to take the story of Jesus as the message of evangelism is quite natural, though admittedly unusual.10 Moreover, I have found that reading a Gospel is the best means of making disciples rather than converts. The experience of walking through Jesus’s story gives the reader a chance to decide who Jesus is and whether to follow him. For example, unlike Peter halfway through Mark’s narrative (8:29), the reader who confesses that Jesus is the Christ after reading the whole story necessarily confesses that Jesus is the crucified and resurrected one. In this case, a yes to Jesus is a yes to his call to take up the cross and follow him. These are, by themselves, good reasons to practice reading the Gospels evangelistically.

In my experience, though, reading a Gospel as gospel is especially fitting for incarnational evangelism because of the correlation between narrative and embodiment. Embodied selves are narrative selves.11 This means not just that a narrative gospel is more powerfully transformative than a propositional gospel (a claim that narrative theology has explored in numerous ways) but that a narrative experience of the gospel is always the experience of a reader who already embodies a story. In this sense, an incarnational evangelist makes a significant shift by moving bodily into and taking part in the story of another. Instead of telling the gospel to the other, which leaves the other to sort out the always-conflictual encounter between the narrative self and the gospel narrative, incarnational evangelism is an embodied participation in the story of the other that entails reading the gospel with the other and walking together through the conflict of narratives.

Looking at evangelism this way raises many questions. For the purposes of the present discussion, I only want to highlight the hermeneutical implication of this experience for the incarnational evangelist. Reading in embodied solidarity with the other transforms the evangelist’s own narrative and, therefore, generates fresh encounters with the gospel narrative. One might suspect that this is a complicated way of saying that, after having new experiences, a reader will see new things in the text. And maybe it is a thick description of just that phenomenon. For an essay on missional hermeneutics in a Peruvian context, however, I believe the key point is this: Incarnational evangelism is an ecclesial practice that engenders particular experiences, which allow the church to see the text anew through particular eyes. Generally, the experience of participating in God’s mission among all peoples allows the church to see the text through eyes transformed by taking part in the stories of others among whom God’s manifold grace is at work. Specifically, my experience was that of a “gringo” struggling to live and read in solidarity with my Peruvian neighbors who were seeking the kingdom and coming to know the king for the first time through the Gospel of Mark.

I have to confess that, as far as the struggle to live in solidarity went, I failed far more than I succeeded. Yet there were moments when, reading Mark with my Peruvian friends and neighbors, their struggles, their wisdom, and their wonderful culture gave me eyes to see. What follows is one example of the ways that reading Mark in solidarity with Peruvians shaped me as an interpreter.

I remember attending a conference before our mission team moved to Arequipa. A man who had been a missionary kid in Peru spoke about the work that remained unfinished a generation after his parents had returned to the United States. He interpreted the perpetually unfinished houses of Peruvian barrios as an analogy for the problem—the unsightly image of rebar sticking up from nearly every rooftop. Yet after I had lived in a few of those unfinished houses, hung laundry on their flat roofs bristling with rebar, and watched the families around me build additions poco a poco (little by little), rebar jutting toward the sky became a symbol of hope. Faced with the impossibility of building multiple stories at once but committed to making space for multiple generations of the family, Peruvians leave the rebar sticking out of the roof level so they can tie into the existing structure when they add the next floor of the house. This is a long-term proposition that often becomes the inheritance of the next generation. I can’t see rebar now without thinking of the tenacious hope of the working poor who make up the vast majority of Peru’s population.

In Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, Justo González shows how the word mañana captures the eschatological essence of Hispanic theology.12 Many Hispanic Christians live more naturally in the tension between the already and the not yet than their Northern brothers and sisters who have been shaped by Enlightenment progressivism. Various uses of the word mañana capture that tension. In my Peruvian experience, the phrase mentioned above, poco a poco, serves a similar, albeit non-theological, function. It signals the patient hope of a people who are used to starting ya (already) but going slowly, little by little, stalling for reasons out of one’s control, postponing, esperando (which is the word for both “waiting” and “hoping”). I dare say this is the structure of a great deal of Peruvian life. I wish I could count the number of times that friends and neighbors, vendors and laborers—and eventually, brothers and sisters in Christ—calmly said to this exasperated gringo, “poco a poco.” Like every dimension of culture, this patient hope has a potential dark side. The experience that shapes it, I believe, is one of centuries-long oppression, widespread systemic corruption, and a persistent lack of options. These may give rise to the virtue of longsuffering hope, but they may also produce resignation and distrust. Nonetheless, I was impressed more often than not by the expectation that change will come, poco a poco.

More importantly, I was shaped by it. After a few years of reading Mark with Peruvians, I began to hear the book’s prologue (1:1–15) differently. Before, I would read the fulfillment of the promise that God would come to lead his people out of exile (1:2–3) and Jesus’s startling claim that “the time is fulfilled” (1:15) and ask my reading companions whether “we” could imagine waiting on a promise for hundreds of years. What would it be like to wait so long and then, finally, hear that the time is now? None of my kind reading companions ever pointed out the irony of my posing that question to them. There came a moment, though, after hearing “poco a poco” over and over, sometimes day after day—after settling into a Peruvian way of life and walking a while with my patient, hopeful friends—that the question was really only whether I could imagine Israel’s long wait and, so, hear the goodness of the news that the time has come. By entering incarnationally into the stories of my Peruvian companions, I was in turn able to enter into Israel’s story differently. I believed cognitively that Mark’s opening announcement of “good news” was supposed to provoke the kind of heart-wrenching relief and joy that accompanies the fulfillment of a hope inherited for generations. I was able to think such thoughts, and even to be moved by such rhetoric, but reading with Peruvians allowed me to experience the gospel in a new way, as one “partially constituted” (West) by the longsuffering hope of the Peruvian people. Perhaps the only way of saying it is that I was privileged to hear God’s word to a Peruvian.

Reading with the hopeful is one example among many. I might also write about reading with the poor, the thankful, the wounded, and the generous. All of these and more were aspects of reading Mark with Peruvians that shaped me in ways that defy prosaic description. And the difficulty of putting these experiences into writing is very much the point: the practice of incarnational evangelism is hermeneutically formative in ways that merely reading the perspectives of others is not. If we could gain the perspective of the other just by reading about it, we wouldn’t need to read with the other. The fact is, reading with, in the fullest sense of the phrase, is uniquely transformative.

The church has various theologically formative practices. Worship, for example, is a set of practices that shapes the church in numerous intangible ways that, in turn, affect how we interpret Scripture. This is not the primary aim of worship, but it is, undoubtedly, one of its effects. Similarly, incarnational evangelism includes a variety of practices, one of which is reading Scripture with kingdom seekers. I consider these fully theological practicesforms of life that cohere with the missional theology of God’s sent people. As such, they shape the church theologically.

In particular, incarnational evangelism puts the church in solidarity with the other, which has its own formative effects. Reading Scripture with the other uniquely places the church in a position to hear God’s word from new perspectives. More specifically, reading a Gospel as gospel with kingdom seekerswhen reading with is a practice of incarnational evangelismallows Christians to enter the stories of others and hear the gospel anew with them. In my view, this is a critical dimension of missional hermeneutics: the missional church learns to read Scripture through the experiences of participation in God’s mission, including and especially through the experiences of reading in solidarity with the other.

1. For a historical perspective on this language, see Darrell L. Guder, “Incarnation and the Church’s Evangelistic Mission,” International Review of Mission 83 (1994): 417–28.
2. Gerald O. West, “Being Partially Constituted by Work with Others: Biblical Scholars Becoming Different,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 104 (1999): 53.
3. See Bob Ekblad, Reading the Bible with the Damned (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).
4. Broadly speaking, “missional hermeneutics” can be defined as “an interpretive approach that privileges mission as the key to reading the scriptures” (Brian D. Russell, “What Is a Missional Hermeneutic?” Catalyst April 2010).
5. Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal for Theological Interpretation 1 (2007): 11.
6. See, for example, a number of essays in Michael W. Goheen, ed., Reading the Bible Missionally (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
7. J. Todd Billings, “The Problem with Incarnational Ministry,” Christianity Today 56 (2012): 58–63.
8. José Miguez Bonino, “Latin America,” in An Introduction to Third World Theologies, ed. John Parratt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 32.
9. See, for example, the concept of 150 percent persons in Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: A Model for Effective Personal Relationships, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). Also responding to Billings, Lingenfelter writes, “I have never imagined that humans could become ‘fully incarnate’ in another culture, as Jesus, wholly God, became fully human in our world. In fact, my metaphor of becoming 150 percent persons makes that very clear. We can never achieve ‘full identification’ with people of one or many cultural origins different from our own” (xiii).
10. Mortimer Arias (Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus [Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2001 [1984], 2) challenges the status quo: “If we want to understand the real meaning of evangelization we need to get back to the sources, to the evangelto the gospel and to the Gospels.” I find this statement as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.
11. This summary statement is, in my view, one of the major implications of Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
12. Justo L. González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), ch. 11.