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Shively T. J. Smith on Howard Thurman and Congregational Hermeneutics

Congregations and lay Christians have methods of interpreting the Bible and faith life even if they can't articulate them. Using Howard Thurman’s image-rich meditations, scholar Shively T. J. Smith offers a visual way to reflect on applying the Bible to faith and ordinary life.

Shively T. J. Smith teaches New Testament at Boston University School of Theology in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a scholar, speaker, and writer who focuses on the letters of the New Testament, diaspora rhetoric, hermeneutics, and Howard Thurman. Smith, an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, serves as member and resident scholar at the historic Metropolitan AME Church (Washington, DC). In this edited conversation, Smith explains why ordinary Christians should learn to do hermeneutics—and how Howard Thurman's image-rich meditations can help. 

What do scholars mean when they talk about hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics is the practice of articulating how humans make meaning—essentially, how we interpret. Interpretation is an avenue for accessing, exchanging, and speaking about the ideas and witness arising from scripture, the world at large, and us. It is a passageway of getting from here to there in our emerging understandings of what is significant and meaningful about the Bible and how it informs our daily living and practices. 

Understanding someone's hermeneutics involves naming the lens through which they experience God, understand scripture, and live out faith. What are the resources, experiences, and values we bring to the task of meaningful comprehension? Since there are many ways of looking at the Bible, one scholar can follow many hermeneutical principles and methods of interpretation. 

Can you give examples of different hermeneutical lenses?

My book Strangers to Family: Diaspora and 1 Peter's Invention of God's Household uses diaspora as a hermeneutical lens. In it I explore how Peter addresses scattered, vulnerable Christians in hostile communities throughout Asia Minor. Instead of describing territorial origin as what they have in common, Peter identifies them as being bound together as brothers and sisters in God's new family. 

But my Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship looks at interpretation through the lens of images and metaphors in Howard Thurman's books of Christian meditations. I wanted to engage congregations in visualizing how interpretive images might help them—or not—proclaim a message of hope, relationality, love, and radical inclusion.

Why do you want congregations to learn to do hermeneutics?

Congregations tend to expect me to open up a biblical text, exegete it, and tell them what it does or doesn't mean. But I want to tell them, "You can interpret the Bible too. It starts with paying attention to how you interpret the world. If you had to pick an image that best represents your process for studying the Bible to understand it, what would be your image of choice? Is it a circle? Do you imagine your interpretative process is akin to going around a circle moving from text, to context, experience, and tradition as you reconstruct the past and live in the present? 

"Maybe you imagine your process for studying the Bible is more like traveling down a footpath carved out of cobblestone. Do you explore here and there and everywhere, looking at the details of the world as it unfolds before you, tripping over those details that seem misplaced or invisible? Do you interpret the writings of the Bible like signposts along your changing journey of faith?" 

How can ordinary congregations begin doing hermeneutics?

We have to pay attention to how we are already involved in the act of interpreting in our daily lives. Then we can pay attention to what we are doing as we interpret Scripture and make healthy or damaging connections with others and God’s creation. The work begins with identifying what we are already doing. I want congregations to learn to pay attention to the meaning-making work they are involved in because I think it also provides clues to the areas where we are engaged in the work of affirming, including, and supporting God’s creation and humanity and the ways we are not.

Who was Howard Thurman, and why do you think he can help people make meaning of their lives of faith?

People know about the civil rights movement in the United States, so I explain that Howard Thurman was the pastor, the mystic sage, who had the ear of Martin Luther King Jr., Otis Moss Sr., and other civil rights leaders. He was a spiritual guide and presence for them.

In the 1940s, Howard Thurman cofounded The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California. It was the nation's first multiracial and interfaith community. Thurman is one of our American pioneers of the twentieth century. He wanted to find ways for people of different faiths and embodiments to find fellowship and kinship with each other. Some of us are just now beginning to have these conversations, and here was Thurman already involved in creating new multicultural and interreligious communities and practices in the 1940s! In 1953 he became dean of Boston University's Marsh Chapel, which made him the first Black dean of a historically white university. He was a thought leader who sought to expand the spaces and relationships he engaged toward more inclusive and interactive human experience.

Do you have a favorite metaphor for what you've called "Thurman-eutics"? 

Yes, it is his image of a clothesline as a place on which all our "hopes, desires, and wishes" hang. Thurman writes about the clothesline in his book The Creative Encounter and in some private letters. 

The strands twisted together to make our clotheslines include the traditions, values, and commitments that form how we understand personal and divine initiatives in our lives. Discovering this clothesline helps us think about how we interpret the scriptures, sacred rituals in our communities, and daily encounters with strangers. It also helps us to understand others as well and to find some connecting threads to other communities, experiences, and perspectives.

I wrote about the clothesline in "Thurman-eutics: Howard Thurman's 'Clothesline' for the Interpretation of the Life of the Mind and the Journey of the Spirit." That chapter was my contribution to the book Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet, edited by Gregory C. Ellison III.

What's an example of a "clothesline strand" of personal or divine initiative?

Thurman says it might be a line you recall from a hymn, prayer, or scripture passage, such as "O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off" (Psalm 139:12, KJV). Or, as I explain in my “Thurman-eutics” chapter, you might discover that you're hanging your feelings, thoughts, and desires on a clothesline woven from contemporary mantras, such as "I am the captain of my fate" or "I am the controller of my own success." Identifying that clothesline strand might humble or embolden you to recognize that a greater force—God—animates our existence. It also should thrust us out of our personal minds and experiences to look outward at others. I think people miss the point of Thurman and even his images if we only use [his work] at the personal level. Thurman was involved in a social endeavor to make human connection healthier, stronger, more ethical and charitable, and more varied.

How have you applied Thurman's clothesline image to understanding your own life and the world around you?

It has helped me understand that my head, heart, and hands—my education, spirituality, and daily encounters with realities and hardships—are not in opposition. They interweave as I seek God and God’s Spirit in all people, places, and things. 

I write in my “Thurman-eutics” chapter, "Thurman pins much of his teachings and ponderings about the inner person, mystical life, and human fellowship to the clothesline of a historic, religious figure: Jesus." Thurman understood Jesus as a divine Savior and prophet who was also a poor Jew living on the underside of imperial Roman power and dominion. This clothesline helps me see that Jesus privileges the experience and struggles of the poor, exploited, persecuted, and dispossessed in American Christianity and colonized societies without erasing the humanity of dominant groups. 

What will people find on your Images of Interpretation website?

The Images of Interpretation: Thurman Metaphors website is one of the deliverables from my Vital Worship Grant. It features changing galleries of Thurman's metaphorical images, such as seed, bridge crossing, or oak tree "family." Each image includes a quote from Howard Thurman along with image and quote sources. A brief description explains what the image meant to Thurman and how it might help people or congregations make meaning of the world and their faith practices. 

How might congregations use your Images of Interpretation website?

The website might be used for group devotions before church, as I did one summer with my own congregation, or in small groups, workshops, personal devotions, or sermon preparation. The website posts several guiding questions for thoughtful reflection, such as which Thurman images represent conditions that help you interpret writings, rituals, and experiences most sacred to you, . . . or which images are unfamiliar, new, helpful, or challenging to how you live out your daily routines and Christian faith.

During my grant project, I led people through several of Thurman's New Testament images for a week-long series at Lakeside Chautauqua in Ohio. This video about Thurman's image of springs records how we listened to Thurman and the Bible, viewed images of springs, and pondered how our inner images of springs can enlarge our understanding of how to love God, our neighbors, and God's created world. 

Howard Thurman wrote so many books. Where do you suggest people start learning about him? 

To read Howard Thurman directly and understand him and his Christian faith, read his famous first book, Jesus and the Disinherited, the book Martin Luther King Jr. carried with him. If you want to focus on Thurman as a contemplative, read his Meditations of the Heart, first published in 1953. To understand his journey and theological development, read his autobiography, With Head and Heart. I recommend Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet, a collection of scholarly essays about Thurman, as a good secondary source for understanding his significance.


Learn more about Howard Thurman from Boston University's Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground and The Howard Thurman Digital Archive at Pitts Theological Library (Candler School of Theology, Emory University). Watch the PBS documentary Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (also available on YouTube, Tubi, and from libraries). Read this brief wiki on biblical hermeneutics.