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Using sight, sound, and the study of the Word to encounter the Spirit

Forget about the black coffee and energy drinks. Those attending the free Friday afternoon workshops at Bexley Seabury’s April 24, 2013 inaurgural event, Restoring the Biblical Imagination, didn’t need to worry about suffering after-lunch lethargy. The two offerings — A Muslim, a Jew and a Christian Walk into a Cafe: Building Relationships through Scriptural Study and The Bible for “Nones”: Sights and Sounds of Scripture — fully engaged participants’ eyes, ears, minds and hearts as they experienced new ways to see, hear, understand and express their faith.

Part One: Opening the Text and Ourselves

The first workshop, A Muslim, a Jew and a Christian Walk into a Cafe: Building Relationships through Scriptural Study, introduced participants to the process of “Scriptural Reasoning,” which brings together people from the three Abrahamic traditions to study and discuss each other’s holy texts. The workshop was coordinated by the Rev. Jason Fout, Bexley Seabury’s associate professor of Anglican theology who studied at the University of Cambridge with David Ford, a co-founder of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning.

Scriptural Reasoning has been gradually spreading across the United States as, small group by small group, religiously observant people gather to deepen their own faith while learning from and building relationships with members of other faiths.

The practice of Scriptural Reasoning began in the early 1990s as “Textual Reasoning” within a group of Jewish philosophers and Rabbinic scholars who sought to engage in cross-disciplinary conversation and to address issues within Judaism. By the middle of the decade, several Christian friends of the group found the process intriguing and a possible basis for inter-faith conversation. After continued growth and reflection, the group realized that a Muslim presence could be important for the practice as well, and Muslim friends were invited to participate. This triadic conversation has become the hallmark of Scriptural Reasoning today.

What does Scriptural Reasoning offer? Ideally, one may gain a deeper understanding of one’s own sacred text and the opportunity to develop relationships and deepen understanding of other faiths; it can often lead in surprising or unanticipated directions. It is not an opportunity to convert or condemn.

“In Scriptural Reasoning, representatives of these three faiths come together, but there is no larger agenda,” Fout said. “We engage the scriptures for the sake of God, not for the sake of saying, See, we all believe the same thing. One of the wonderful things in Scriptural Reasoning is that we come as a Christian, we come as a Jew, we come as a Muslim. It is through the deep particularity of our faith that we come together. We often have a convergence, but we also disagree.

“I think it is important that this practice began with Jewish thinkers,” Fout said. “The Christian community has not valued argument as have Jewish thinkers. The context of Textural Reasoning was friends getting together and arguing with the text and feeling free to disagree with each other. This can seem deeply counter-cultural; we in America seem to think we can’t disagree with someone without risking their friendship.

“As an example in geopolitics, you can go back to the situation prior to our invasion of Iraq in 2003,” Fout said. “The French, who I think get this — they by and large will feel free to disagree with someone if they are friends — they said, ‘Why in the world would you do this?’ But from our perspective, we felt that, if you are our friends, you’ll get behind us and support us no matter what. The French think, ‘no, if we’re your friend, we’re going to tell you what you’re doing is wrong.’

“In this sense, Scriptural Reasoning can be a deeply, almost countercultural practice, because it is expected that you’ll disagree with someone. The differences are really the interesting thing and can be most illuminating.”

But all discussions and disagreements are respectful.

“The big thing with this practice is that there’s always an aspect of mutual hospitality,” Fout said, “because you share with them your own Scriptures, playing host, letting them in and allowing them to explore. And of course it’s mutual, because they are likewise sharing their Scriptures with you.

The workshop started off with a brief introduction to the practice, followed by a demonstration of scriptural reasoning by a Christian, a Jew and Muslim. Then the sacred texts used for the scriptural reasoning session were distributed to attendees, who divided up into small groups and discussed the texts for about 30 minutes.

“We hear about it, see it, and then experience it,” Fout said, describing the process. “It seems to me that this is a tool for a priest’s or other parish leader’s tool kit to engage with scripture and to nurture relationships with people who are religiously other than ourselves,” Fout said. “This is not a watered-down interfaith activity but a genuine engagement that respects the profound differences in the faith.”

Fout said he had two hoped-for outcomes of the workshop.

“One, I hoped that participants might be able to have an initial grasp of this process and want to go more deeply into Scriptural Reasoning. This experience being more like a taster than the main course, I hoped participants might say, ‘Wow, I want to go further. I want to find out more’ — perhaps on their way to forming a biblical reasoning group in their parish, focusing on the Christian Bible, or even start a Scriptural Reasoning group, too. Those would be increasing steps in boldness.

“And two, one of the reasons we did this is to show the interesting and energizing and empowering things Bexley Seabury can do. We’re saying, ‘Here’s what we are doing. We think this is one amazing way that the church can bolster its own faith and serve the world. How can we help you in your mission?’”

Part Two: Sight and Sound to Stir the Spirit

The second offering was The Bible for “Nones”: Sights and Sounds of Scripture, an experiential workshop that immersed participants in an environment of images and sound and invited a new kind of encounter with the Biblical story. It was offered as a way to sense scriptural truth beyond words, by appealing to the heart as well as the mind.

This workshop explored how the growing number of Americans who identify with no religious group (the “nones”) have begun to change the way we understand both ourselves as Christians, and how we understand the scriptural and theological traditions that have shaped our religious life. It was designed and led by the Rev. John Dally, professor of theology and culture at Bexley Seabury and Artis-in-Residence at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Chicago. His particular interest is generating theological reflection through images and sounds.

Also presenting was Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Seminary in Chicago and Professor of Hebrew Bible there. Yamada is passionate about the way seminaries must create new models for delivering theological education that respond to an increasingly diverse American population.

The third presenter was Shaun Whitehead, associate chaplain at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and worship leader of the Gospel Service Community there, a progressive Christian community. A large portion of her flock consists of those unaffiliated youth highlighted last fall in a study by the Pew Research Center.

The Pew report noted that the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace with one-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — saying they are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever. Called “nones,” because their response on a questionnaire asking about religious affiliation is “none,” they represent both an opportunity and a challenge for the church. This workshop explored how to present the Bible in ways that will connect with them.

At the liberal arts university where she is chaplain, Whitehead said that “nones” make up a significant portion of the students who attend religious services on campus and belong to her gospel choir.

“I deal with the nones all the time,” Whitehead said. “I don’t know that many people here know they are considered that.”

She has found that music is usually what gets them into the door at her weekly service.

“A good number of people who come to our worship experience are not Christians and would not describe themselves as religious,” Whitehead said. “I am very intentional about the liturgy I choose for the service. Welcoming is a big part of the platform. I have people say to me, especially my cohorts, ‘How do you preach weekly to people who are not Christians?’ It’s because I believe in a Gospel that it is big enough to include all people. The people around me who are spiritual but not religious have told me that. However, I don’t dilute my sermons. I work hard to not stretch them so wide that it becomes a speech that appeals to everyone. I preach from the biblical text. Jesus is how I come to God, but I recognize that for many people, Jesus as the only vehicle to God is not the way they come.”

In worshiping with the people who don’t identify with any particular faith, Whitehead said she is careful not to lay down a lot of rules.

“Salvation only through Jesus is problematic for a lot of people. I grew up with a whole lot of absolutes. I allow a lot of questions. In the preaching, the liturgy, the music, there is room to say we don’t understand.

“I know the declining numbers of people of faith. I do believe we have to move with the times because God’s message of love to me is the constant. We have to find ways beyond merely ‘these are the rules,’” Whitehead said. “There are students who say they see Christianity as a religion of what we should be against.”

“Although many people find truth, freedom and God’s love in our approach to biblical texts, some people think we have an anything goes theology. We don’t. I preach Christ crucified, but at the same time I can receive the wisdom of other religions.”

“Our Community Gospel Choir presents an annual gospel workshop and concert each year. This will be our 10th anniversary,” Whitehead said. “People of all religious traditions and none can find themselves in the music. At the workshop, I will probably invite people to sing. Singing is very intimate. People can feel transcendence.”