Leah D. Schade is the assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She has authored and edited four books, including Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). She also blogs for Patheos as the EcoPreacher.
Immigration. Healthcare. Money and possessions. Environmental issues.
The list of topics of public concern that affect the people in our congregations and communities is long and complex.
It so happens that scripture addresses a myriad of topics that have direct relation to issues we’re facing today. So, by extension, preachers and their congregations can speak to these topics from a biblical perspective.
The question is: how can we preach on “hot topics” in a way that invites dialogue rather than driving a wedge into the red-blue divides of our congregations?
For Christians, any contemporary issue must be brought into conversation with our understanding of a God who continues to be active in Creation and human history. That’s exactly why the rooting our preaching in the Bible is useful for these “pollinating” conversations.
Within the canon, there are a variety of perspectives that span thousands of years and show us what it looks like for faithful people to disagree while discerning how to be the people of God. So we need to spend some time thinking about the ways in which conversations happen in the stories of the Bible, as well as how the books of the Bible are themselves in dialogue.
In other words, we need a dialogical lens for reading scripture that enables us to see how God works in and through our complicated, messy, conflicted, and yet faithful conversations in order to bring about discernment, justice, healing, and reconciliation.
In this post I’ll show you how to employ this dialogical lens.
Reading and Interpreting Scripture Through a Dialogical Lens
Utilizing the dialogical lens requires us to draw from different exegetical methods.
The historical-critical method is useful for determining the author of the work, its original audience, other intertextual sources, and the social, historical, or cultural influences with which the author may be implicitly or explicitly in conversation.
Literary analysis will be helpful as we determine the characters and their roles in the story and the rhetorical techniques being used in the text.
But the dialogical lens will also require some interpretive imagination, since the text sometimes only hints at the motivations and emotions of the characters and authors.
At the same time, we need to consider the reader-response method because of the way in which the text will be heard and interpreted by readers in our contemporary contexts.
Finally, the dialogical lens benefits from feminist interpretation, liberation theology, and John McClure’s “other-wise” homiletic,each of which enables us to ascertain the voices in the conversation that are not heard or acknowledged, but who nevertheless have a stake in the outcome.
Six Steps for Using the Dialogical Lens
With these critical methods in mind, here are six steps for using the dialogical lens:
Point out the dialogical aspects of the passage. In broad terms, describe how this passage of the Bible is an instance of conversation, dialogue, or some other kind of interchange. Who is the (presumed) author, and who was the intended audience? What were the social, cultural, and political forces either in the background or directly present in the passage? What other books or authors in the Bible are implicitly in conversation with this text or author? If the story is a narrative, who are the characters? Who speaks? Who is in the background? Who is in the scene but silent?
Determine what’s at stake. What is the presenting issue? What are the fears or concerns of the author, the audience, or the characters? What are they afraid of losing? What or who is threatening to them? What are the overt or underlying tensions or conflicts?
Identify the values. This gets at the deeper ideals and principles that underlie a character’s actions or writer’s intentions. What is important to them? What do they cherish and hold dear? What is their “best self” that could emerge? Find the overlap—and the gaps. What desires, fears, and values do the characters or figures share? In other words, where are points of commonality among or between them? At the same time, where are there vast differences? What are the things the dialogue partners are unlikely to agree upon?
Explain how God, Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit is active. What is God doing in the midst of this interchange? Is God’s action explicit, implicit, or apparently absent? How is the larger community wrestling with or expressing their faith in God?
Recognize what the dialogue is teaching us. What is this exchange, dialogue, or conversation teaching us about what it means to be church in the midst of contentious public issues? What can we learn about being faithful people who engage the conflicts and sin of the world, while maintaining the commitment to grace, hope, and love? What can we determine about who God is, what God does, and what God intends for us based on this interchange and dialogue in the passage?
Suggest possible next steps. What are next steps we might take based on what this biblical passage models for us? Are we sensing God’s invitation to engage public concerns? Are we being invited into dialogue with each other, with this passage, and with God about specific justice issues? Are we learning what not to do based on what we see in this text? Are there common values we share that can be the basis for our response to a societal matter? What kind of church shall we be, knowing what the Bible models for us, and knowing what challenges our community is facing?
These steps and questions can help us craft sermons about specific issues we want to address in our sermons, as well as ongoing conversations about these topics in our congregations. Preaching using a dialogical lens helps us make the case that the church is permitted, authorized, encouraged, and even urged to preach about public issues precisely because Scripture has already opened the conversation for us. We need only to step into that conversation with trust that Holy Spirit is already preparing the way.
The dialogical lens is not to be confused with Martin Buber’s dialogical hermeneutic. See: The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theologyby Steven Kepnes (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992).
Other-wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics, John S. McClure, (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001).
Questions for Reflection
What would it look like to apply this dialogical lens and then develop a sermon from it?
What are different ways these steps can be used for employing a dialogical lens for exegeting scripture and crafting Purple Zone sermons?
Resources for Understanding and Employing a Dialogical Lens
Check out these links on Leah’s blog for examples of how the dialogical lens can be applied to different scriptural texts.
Looking for a place to talk about challenges like this?
Check out The Collective
You’ll find a group of preachers seeking wisdom and insight as they prepare their sermons each week. Plus, you’ll gain tools and resources to help you write better sermons faster—with more joy.