Hermeneutics for Ragamuffins: Some things a former Calvinist has learned from Liberation theology

This is an abridged version of an essay I recently wrote, if you’d like to read the full thing do be in touch


It’s probably fair to say that the environment in which we share the Bible in the UK has changed radically in the last 100 years. People are bringing different kinds of questions to the table. As one author noted, the air of expectation and hope of the early twentieth century very quickly gave way to the cruel realities of “Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Gulag Archipelago”. The West’s great hope of self-redemption and apotheosis through science, technology, education and the secular nation state gave way to a climate of fear, mistrust of institutions, and philosophical confusion. Alan Hirsch notes that twenty-first century western culture means living in the ever present realities of “terrorism, technological innovation, an unsustainable environment, rampant consumerism, and discontinuous change”, and that the Church faces a “very significant adaptive challenge”. Elliot Alderson, the protagonist in Sam Esmail’s ‘Mr Robot’, launches into a prophetic assault on the blind spots of western society during a therapy session, finishing with these darkly honest words, “we want to be sedated, because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards….. F@$k Society”. Judging by the popularity of the show, and the number of ‘memes’ created of this speech for social media sharing, it seems to have resonated quite widely.

Back in 1994 John Drane observed that “after 300 years of dominance, the Enlightenment values are crumbling fast”, although twenty-two years later it could be argued that this process has not been as fast as some expected. Our culture is in a state of flux, we seem to be in the shift between two eras, social commentators can’t even agree on terms to describe this epoch, some using terms such as “post-modernity” and “liquid modernity”. As Chuck Palahniuk observed in his seminal novel ‘Fight Club’, “We are the middle children of history”.

Alongside broader cultural considerations one must consider the local and sub-cultural context of ministry, for “God, it seems, is infatuated with place: with the particular and the concrete. The Incarnation demonstrates the extent of this commitment”. This is an essential consideration; genuine theology is always done with reference to a particular context. There are particularities of Luton culture and the sub-group ‘Poor, marginalised and excluded’ which I serve, that need some attention. Luton has the highest rate of child poverty in the South East, and is in several factors, in the top 10% for deprivation on a national scale. This creates some direct challenges not only for sharing the Bible, but also for theological reflection in my own life. One of the great questions posed by ministry in the context of poverty is, “how are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?”. There is a need to draw alongside those on the margins of our society; many perceive strong ties between Church and establishment, fearing that Christians aren’t ‘on their side’. This, along with some of the ideas we have absorbed into the Bible from our own culture, is challenged by widening our reading circle to include those on the outside of the ‘in-crowd’. Only then, in following the example of Jesus, can we discover “Good news for the poor” (Luke 4:18). As Bob Ekblad notes, in a post-christian society (although some have argued that towns like Luton are post-secular), people approach the Bible with an “official transcript” in their minds, and will often give answers they think the ‘leader’ wants to hear. It is important in these situations to dig a little deeper, and to discover what is behind these ‘right’ answers that people give. It can be a shock for the marginalised to discover a Jesus who is on their side.  Some have been harshly critical of movements such as Liberation Theology, claiming that they are the fruit of a liberal “religious left”, are incompatible with scripture, and that “as long as mainline leadership stresses social awareness over spiritual commitment, change will never occur”. I find this response troubling, firstly it wrongly assumes a implicit association between commitment to the poor and left wing politics. Association with the poor cannot be attributed to mere ‘leftism’, which as Richard Rohr notes, is often “the same [power] game on the other side of the playing field”. Secondly, to create a dichotomy between spiritual commitment and social awareness seems to be falling into the age-old divide of evangelical dualism.

Many of the people whom I work with suffer with substance addiction and/or mental health issues. This in particular creates some interesting challenges. As in wider society, mental ill-health can be something of a taboo subject in churches, and as in wider society we may have a tendency for hiding away the unwell, condemning them to ‘leper colonies’. As Foucault aptly observed, “the face of madness has haunted the imagination of Western man”. Here particular narrative texts in the Gospels take on a greater significance. Both Mark and Luke record the encounter of Jesus with the Gerasene Demoniac, a man who came to Jesus deeply tormented, and left “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15; Luke 8:35). I don’t want to get on to arguments about demonisation, but here we clearly see Jesus embracing a mentally and spiritually tormented man, and leaving him healed. Interestingly (supposedly under the influence of the evil spirit) the man is able to articulate that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28), something he doesn’t seem to have been told. I have often found that persons in our group whose minds do not conform to societal norms seem to have different insights into the Bible, and are often unafraid of pointing out logical interpretations others may find too challenging or troubling.

As always, hermeneutical (how we approach the Bible) considerations are of great importance in traversing the Scriptures in my context. Ground-motives here are highly influential. My motivation is not merely to cultivate abstract theoretical knowledge of the Bible text, but rather to see people positively transformed and by God’s truth through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is in this sense that there is much to glean from the hermeneutics of Liberation Theology, “an examination of the the whole of scripture from the view-point of the oppressed”. A powerful charism of Liberative hermeneutics is that the Bible becomes a “book of life”, not just concerned with abstract interpretation of the Scriptures, but interpreting life “according to the Scriptures”. A trinitarian hermeneutic gives depth to some of the theological questions raised by journeying towards Christian community. Where we read of God’s vision for, and interactions with humanity in the Scriptures, we should understand them in view of a God whose “identity is based in relationship”, therefore “the Christian understanding of human life and Christian social ethics are thus grounded in trinitarian theology”. My work is primarily a missional enterprise, and as such a missional hermeneutic is appropriate. This in turn relates closely to a Christocentric hermeneutic. As Christopher Wright points out in light of Jesus’ Emmaus Road expounding of the scriptures (Luke 24), “the proper way for disciples of the crucified and risen Jesus to read their scriptures, is messianically and missionally”. The above approaches could fairly be described as narrative, in that they approach the wider narrative of the scriptures and attempt to interpret key concepts and truths from the whole story, as opposed to Systematic theology which takes the “fruit of exegetical and biblical theology and brings them together into a concatenated system”. Van Til points out one of the weaknesses of Christocentric theology, that it is “the full Godhead” we wish to know, and that therefore “theology is primarily God centred rather than Christ centred [emphasis mine]”. We do not wish to miss the particularities of Father and Holy Spirit when reflecting on God in the scriptures. While I agree with this observation, I think Bosch makes a good argument that the systematising of theology was partly a reaction to the Enlightenment, and an attempt to turn theology into a science along the Enlightenment’s rationalistic and reductive terms. This in itself poses problems for the context in which I work, the Bible does not exclusively belong to academic theologians, but is open to interpretation by every day people.

A local minister described his congregation as largely disempowered. I have found this to be true across the town. As a post industrial town, many of the inhabitants are used to working for large institutions – Vauxhall, Electrolux, Luton Airport, Luton & Dunstable Hospital, The Mall, the municipal council etc. A few ministers I have spoken to have described a culture of reliance and entitlement in the town. There is also a significant amount of unemployment. With this mind I have sought to cultivate a culture of mutual involvement in groups I have started, rather than me as the leader, and everyone else listens. There is a growing movement of de-centred ecclesial communities globally, which in itself could be a reaction to the post-modern suspicion of institutions. Viola and Barna give a detailed account of the origins of the modern sermon, and highlight how it’s one-way performance “encourages passivity” and “prevents the church from functioning as intended”. As they also note, the pattern in the New Testament seems to be one of mutual participation (I Corinthians 14:26).

There is no doubt that in my work the Bible must be shared, and it must be shared contextually. Jesus seemed to spend much of his time with the marginalised, and as his followers maybe we should too. What I’m trying to do is beyond mission or pastoral care among the marginalised, but as noted by the Boff brothers, “the worship that is pleasing to God must be a “search for justice”, and a turning to the needy and the oppressed”. It is an issue of worship and justice that we share what we have (or at least what we think we have), theological, practical, spiritual, with those who have not. And in sharing, what was in our hands is so often multiplied.

He said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.

(Luke 9:13)


If you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.


The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

(Isaiah 58:10-11 NRSV)



David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 10th edn (United States: Orbis Books (USA), 1991), p. 266.

Alan Hirsch and Darryn Altclass, Forgotten Ways Handbook, the: A Practical Guide for Developing Missional Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, Div of Baker Publishing Group, 2009), p. 26.

‘“Fuck Society” – Mr Robot’s Elliot Alderson Outlines Society’s Blind-Spots with Fervor’, Failure (Growth Guided, 2015) <http://www.growthguided.com/fuck-society-mr-robots-elliot-alderson-outlines-societys-blind-spots-with-fervor/&gt; [accessed 25 February 2016].

John William W. Drane, Faith in a Changing Culture: Creating Churches for the next Century (London: Marshall Pickering, 1997), p. 17.

Hirsch & Altclass, Forgotten Ways Handbook, p. 26.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (United Kingdom: Vintage Digital, 2011), p. 166.

Leonard Hjalmarson, No Home like Place: A Christian Theology of Place (United States: Createspace, 2014), p. 26.

Stephen B. Bevans and Prof. Robert J. Schreiter, Models of Contextual Theology (faith and Cultures Series), 5th edn (United States: Orbis Books (USA), 2002).

Child Health Profile Children Living in Poverty, 2014 <http://www.chimat.org.uk/resource/view.aspx?RID=192024&gt; [accessed 17 February 2016].

2010 Indices of Multiple Deprivation Luton (August 2011), <http://www.luton.gov.uk/Environment/Lists/LutonDocuments/PDF/Planning/Observatory/2010%20Indices%20of%20Deprivation%20Luton%20Report.pdf&gt; [last accessed 05/05/2015].

Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. by Paul Burns, 2nd edn (United States: Orbis Books (USA), 1996), p. 7.

Bob Ekblad, Reading the Bible with the Damned (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,U.S., 2005), p. 2.

Ekblad, Reading The Bible With The Damned, p. 8.

Edmund W Robb and Julia Robb, The Betrayal of the Church: Apostasy and Renewal in the Mainline Denominations (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1986), p. 27.

Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co ,U.S., 2003), p. 65.

Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 315.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by Richard Howard, 3rd edn (London: Tavistock, 1971), p. 15.

Boff, An Introduction To Liberation Theology, p. 32.

Ibid., p. 34.

Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004), p. 77.

Ibid., p. 80.

Christopher J H Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006), p. 31.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction To Systematic Theology (United States: P & R Publishing Co (Presbyterian & Reformed), 1974), p. 2.

Ibid., p. 2.

Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 272.

Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 17.

Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (United Kingdom: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007), p. 97.

Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 44.


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