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It takes a village

And not just to raise a child. Studying Scripture works best in community, says Columbia Seminary preaching professor

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Anna Carter Florence

LOUISVILLE — Rather than cracking open the Good Book alone, why not encounter Scripture in community alongside others seeking to know what’s true about the text?

That’s the method Dr. Anna Carter Florence uses with her preaching students at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and it’s one she also recommends for more seasoned preachers as well as people in the pews who want to delve deeply, around a table or via Zoom, into God’s Word.

Florence, a theater student while an undergraduate at Yale University, has students actually rehearse Bible stories in small groups before preaching on the text the following week. In 2018 Florence discussed the technique in her book “Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community.”

On Wednesday, Florence was the guest of the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation, host of the 30-minute “Leading Theologically” broadcast available on YouTube here and on Facebook here.

Once, Florence recalled, she asked students to rehearse Mark’s account of the rich man who kneels before Jesus and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Florence asked the preaching students to play the roles of Jesus and the disciples packing their things to dash off to the next town as this wealthy man keeps interrupting them. There’s a moment in the text where Jesus looks at the man and loves him before telling the man he lacks one thing: selling all he has and giving the proceeds to the poor.

“I don’t think we would have seen that if we hadn’t packed our bags and had the person follow the students trying to have this conversation,” Florence said. “It takes a lot of guts to interrupt somebody in that moment.”

The “sneaky, subtle subtext” of the book is bringing people together to talk and learn from one another, Florence told Hinson-Hasty. When the pandemic subsides, “I hope there will be an openness to that need” because “we will be hearing very different things in Scripture” because “our context has changed” after years of living with the coronavirus.

“I never thought of myself as an online teacher,” Florence told Hinson-Hasty. “There are a lot of things about teaching in this mode that I love,” despite being a self-pronounced “digital immigrant.” One eye-opener has been using Zoom to get to know students in their home environment.

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

“We are in Adaptive Change 3.0 or 4.0 by now,” Hinson-Hasty quipped.

“It’s nice to think I am being adaptive rather than reactive,” Florence replied. “I’ve always been in awe of students, but now — oh my gosh! Some of them can’t even start studying until midnight, or they’re in a small space with others.”

“This was not something I anticipated for myself,” Florence said of getting to know students in this different way. “It has been an amazing thing to learn … Your students teach you how to teach.”

What she’s learned is to teach from what Florence calls a “suspended workshop space” where “we’re not under pressure to decide what the text means. But we are trying to listen to what it says.” The wisdom of those who taught her theater studies decades ago “was that some texts need to be rehearsed. You’ve got to get out there and try all sorts of things in a scene to find out what seems truthful.”

Members of church choirs are very familiar with rehearsing, “but we don’t necessarily associate it with Scripture,” Florence said. “You don’t have to rush to what’s right. But think about what’s true.”

For many years, the first text students have worked with at Columbia Seminary is Mark 5:25-34, the woman Jesus heals after she’s been suffering from 12 years of bleeding. Then they wrestle with the very next story, Jesus raising the synagogue leader’s daughter from the dead. “You’d think I would have heard every possible question,” Florence said, “and still someone will notice a detail I’ve never seen or thought to ask. You realize how impoverished you are as a reader if you do it by yourself and do it only once.”

She’s constantly telling students that the text “gives and gives and gives. It just gives, in amazing ways that are always unexpected. When the group is together and the Spirit is moving, the text gives birth to us again. I think it’s there to be our daily bread.”

She tries to teach students to “come to Scripture with freedom but also with precision.” In addition: “You don’t need to defer to people you think might do it better than you.”

By hearing what people studying Scripture together — including the questions they ask — “that’s what makes you want to take off your shoes” because it’s holy ground, Florence said. “It renews my faith.”

Some time ago she joined with a women’s lectionary group in South Carolina to study Scripture via Zoom. She’s also used intergenerational groups in the same pursuit.

“What I love is the way you gain reverence for the text and for one another,” Florence said. “You come into a room thinking you will never agree with someone and you find you really respect what they’re saying, even if you disagree with them theologically. It has helped me get over some of those barriers.”

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