Coming to the Table, part 1

Posted: March 16, 2011 in Hermeneutics

I remember as a child coming to the table for a meal at my grandparents house in Lakeville, Mass. It was always an adventure especially if my cousins were out from Ohio. Conversation was sometimes loud but always vigorous. I suppose it was around the table that my identity was greatly formed. Often times I would sit still listening (sometimes a bit intimidated) depending upon the topic of conversation. Over time I gradually became a more active participant in the debates and discussions which seemed to take place simultaneously. There was a cornucopia of topics varying from Grandpa’s childhood to the current happenings at the local Baptist church (in which I grew up). I learned much at that table. Although it was mostly non-informational, my hermeneutical perspective was essentially shaped within that context.

There have been many tables since then of which I have been a part and each has offered its own conversations and topics. One of them has been the effect that symbolic practices have upon our interpretive lenses. Within the particular Christian community there are shared practices that I believe affect the way we interpret both reality in which we live and the written words we read. I have been pondering for some time as to what makes any one Christian tradition (hermeneutical perspective) distinctive from the others while still sharing some sameness as well. As has been noted many times the symbolic practices of the various Christian communities are the same practices that divide them. There are several reasons for this. The one I will address here is the distinctive way each community practices each symbol. For instance, in the Baptist community (in which I grew up) practiced the Lord’s Supper by sitting in the pews facing forward toward the altar. The service began with silent examination, some brief instruction as to the meaning of the elements, and then they were served by the deacons to the congregation (it should be noted that the Church of the Brethren community of which I am currently a part practices this same form of the Eucharist twice per year in addition to their distinctive practice). Another example is the Church of Scotland in which I worshiped for a brief time. In this community the Eucharist is served at the end of the service also. However, rather than, being served in the pews congregants were invited forward to an enclave at which point a minister would serve each congregant both elements. The distinctive here was that a common cup was shared and real wine was served (as opposed to grape juice which was familiar to me). As a final example, the Church of Brethren community, of which I am currently a part, practices the Lord’s Supper in a distinctive way twice per year (world communion Sunday and Maundy Thursday). In this practice the congregants begin with a time of worship and examination. Then they move to the practice of footwashing which serves as preparation for gathering around a common table at which they share a simple meal and close with the bread and cup. While distinctions are apparent, each community was practicing the same symbol. The primary differences were interpretive in nature. Yet to say that each community is distinct simply because of these varying practices is not enough. Below the surface there are narrative contexts that convey meaning and affect the significance of these practices.

Alasdair McIntyre (After Virtue, 204ff) argues that because the human life is none other than narrative in essence, sharing both a beginning, middle, and ending, that it is through the living of these narratives that the person finds meaning. He says specifically, “Deprive children of stories, and you leave them unscripted, stutterers in their actions and in their words” (216). The point is that people not only live stories, but it is in the perception of life as narrative that people find meaning. For example, when a person experiences a horrific event in her life, she has to retell the story sequence over and again to herself in order to work out some sort of meaning. In a positive sense, when we participate in the symbolic practices they too affect how we find meaning.  This telling and retelling the story affects our interpretive lenses as we struggle to make sense of the experience. In one sense the symbolic practice is existential. However, as the congregation tells and hears the story of the upper room while re-enacting the scene, they essentially enter into the story accepting it as their own. This phenomenon effectually shapes the lenses through which they interpret as their identity narratives are expanded to include such participation as their own. Therefore, if we consider the narrative ways in which each congregation distinctively practiced the symbol we begin to observe the complexities and significance of the hermeneutical effects. If each practice was exegeted, we would discover particular the narrative significance in each, especially as to their hermeneutical effects.

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