I hope my overview of Kenneth E. Bailey’s work has been worth your time. As I look back over some of these posts they seem a little disconnected and disjointed at times. I hope that despite my feeble efforts at conveying Bailey’s insights it has at least raised your curiosity into Bailey's approach to scripture.
I think Bailey provides a corrective for two equally unhealthy tendencies present in church culture when it comes to reading scripture. One is the “plain reading” school of thought. I was recalling yesterday some study I read on a culture (I think in Africa) where nodding your head up and down meant no and shaking your head side to side meant yes. I have also read that in traditional Japanese cultural it is impolite to refuse a request or correct someone. That would mean losing face. Therefore, an inappropriate request is greeted verbally with acceptance but body language is used to communicate the real intent. (Someone please correct me if I am misrepresenting this.) Imagine the confusion of bringing our “plain reading” form of communication into the mix. Understanding cultural context is paramount to understanding scripture. I find many trivialize understanding cultural context as a "liberal" method for bypassing the "plain meaning" while they bring their own unexamined cultural context to scripture and thereby distort the "plain meaning."
We are not from the biblical culture and it is often difficult ascertain with precision the cultural context. Bailey and other scholars have read extensively from records contemporary to Jesus. Bailey concludes that much of biblical culture has survived among some present day traditional communities in the Middle East. While they are not identical, Middle Eastern culture is much closer in time in space to New Testament thought patterns and cultural assumptions than is Western Christianity. Only now are many of the early Bible manuscripts and commentaries of the Arabic and other Middle Eastern traditions becoming available to the rest of the world. The fact is that very early on the Western Church became hostile to Middle Eastern culture and that has warped many of our traditional understandings of scripture. Already these Middle Eastern sources are beginning to challenge our “plain reading” of the text.
The other unhealthy tendency I see is the Jesus Seminar type of approach that makes a host of highly speculative assumptions and then concocts unsubstantiated communities who altered Jesus vision and teaching. The goal is to get to the Jesus behind the alterations these hypothesized communities foisted upon followers. The tautologies employed and presumptuousness involved is amazing. I have only related Bailey’s work about Luke 15. If you read his other work, a picture of Jesus and his teaching emerges that locates him squarely in his cultural context and makes clear how radical and masterful Jesus teaching really was. Jesus entered into the narratives of the Jews (like Jacob) and retold them in a compelling way. He used stories and parables to create alternative interpretative structures that reshape the hearers’ entire frame of mind. It exposes the heavily agenda laden revisionism of the Jesus Seminar types for what it really is.
It is the metaphorical nature of Jesus' theology I find so compelling. I am not dismissing the usefulness and insights that can be had through a systematic theology approach. I am merely suggesting that we to often get lost in the dissection and kill the story. The story is the main thing! Thank you Ken Bailey for making this so clear to me and to so many others.
As for Luke 15 specifically, I find myself pulled in two different directions. First, I am deeply moved by the reception the prodigal son receives from the father. This love is something it took me well into adulthood to truly begin to understand. To see it so vividly exemplified in the parable by Jesus is powerful. Second, I am deeply repulsed by the image of myself as the older son and yet I all too often fit neatly in his sandals. The scribe and Pharisee in me seems to be an ever present companion. But like Nouwen, I don't think either son was Jesus' intended focus in the story, though we can not help but see ourselves in these roles. I think the parable includes within it the call, individually and corporately, to be people who welcome the rebellious law-breaker and the rebellious law-keeper.
There are also some important insights here for ecclesiology and mission. The word "pastor" is Latin for shepherd. When I read Jeremiah 23, I was struck by verse three where God says he will be the shepherd:
Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.
An obvious but often overlooked point is that shepherds don't reproduce sheep. Sheep do! The shepherd leads them to safe places to feed and eat. He wards of predators. But other than that, he just makes room for sheep to do whatever it is that sheep do. They provide a place for the sheep to safely expand the flock. This is similar to Dallas Willard's farmer friend who observed that farmers don't grow crops, they tend soil. All they can do is provide optimum circumstances for the seeds to do what seeds do. There are some interesting implications here that I am still reflecting on. I may write more on this later.
When you enter fully into these metaphors there are implications at any number of levels. That is what makes them so powerful. Every time I revisit these metaphors I see something new. I hope it has been the same for you.
If you want to read some of Bailey’s work here are a few suggestions:
Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Combined edition): A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, is actually two books in one. "Poet and Peasant," originally published in 1976, lays out Bailey's methodology for reading the parables. He then focuses on six passages to illustrate the approach. "Through Peasant Eyes," originally published in 1980, is a look at ten parables in Luke using the literary-cultural approach. Reading these two books gives a good overview of Bailey's approach.
Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 is the book I have referenced the most for these posts. The book contains a forty page introduction that talks about Jesus as a metaphorical theologigan and places him with in his cultural context. Bailey goes to great lengths to show how Jesus had tapped into the Shepherd and sheep metaphors in developing his Luke 15 parable. If you are interested in the details of how Jesus "incarnated" the Old Testament stories of sheep and shepherd, this is it. Every time I revist his analysis between Psalm 23 and Luke 15 I see something new.
Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story builds on "Finding the Lost." Bailey has some very interesting material in the earlier chapters about Jesus likely educational experience and his relationship to the scribes and Pharisees. He also writes about the origins of Luke's gospel and how he thinks it came to be. However, the amazing part of this book is the way Bailey unfolds the connection between the story of the Compassionate Father in Luke 15 and the story of Jacob in Genesis 27-35. I don't know of any serious scholars who doubt this parable was authentic to Jesus. It is the evangelium in evangelio. On one hand it shows the direct connection of Jesus to the God of the Old Testament. On the other hand it unmistakably links Jesus to the mission and purpose articulated by the early church that groups like the Jesus Seminar want to cast as later additions. It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.
Finally, Bailey has a fascinating article on-line about women in Middle Eastern Culture called Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View. Also, there is a copy of his article Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. It gives a fascinating presentation of the role Bailey believes the controlled oral tradition played in creating and an authentic representation of Jesus and his teaching in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
[My next post will contain indexed links to this series of posts.]