An Intimate Revelation

Intercultural Bible Reading with Adolescents

by Taggert Wolverton (Author)
©2020 Monographs XII, 218 Pages


An Intimate Revelation chronicles an unprecedented multi-year research project that investigated what happens when adolescents from around the world read and discuss Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son together. The study gathered together adolescent participants, pastoral leaders, and theologians from several countries to read in conversational communities, and these groups then exchanged their interpretations with each other across cultural and religious distinctions. The result is a helpful step forward in understanding how adolescents make meaning when they read the Bible and how the intercultural reading process can spur participants toward spiritual growth.
The book begins by presenting thorough explanations of the foundational concepts of the project before then focusing on each of the groups’ specific experiences through a close examination of their transcripts and written materials. With that foundation laid, a critical analysis of the material investigates signs of spiritual growth as well as the adolescent participants’ ability to function in the process of intercultural communication. The participants’ hermeneutical interpretive grids are presented along with evidence of their ability to create theological applications, and finally the process of intercultural Bible reading is itself compared to the characteristics of effective youth ministry as a hopeful ally in the development of the next generation’s spirituality.
As a report on the only study of its kind to empirically observe adolescent Bible readers participating in an intercultural reading process, these pages offer insight and motivation to pastoral leaders, theologians, and anyone else questioning how to connect this globally aware generation to a vibrant faith.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One The Project
  • 1 Understanding Intercultural Bible Reading
  • 2 The Components
  • 3 The Research Method
  • 4 The Experience of the Groups
  • Part Two Implications
  • 5 Spiritual Growth as Transformation
  • 6 The Role of Intercultural Openness
  • 7 Adolescent Interpretive Grids
  • 8 Adolescents as Theologians
  • 9 An Ally in Youth Ministry
  • Appendix A ‘Quick Start‘ Protocol
  • Appendix B Codes


In the final book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, three of the Pevensie children (Peter, Edmund, and Lucy) find that, after walking through a door, the Narnia they are familiar with has been replaced with another Narnia. This new Narnia, although reminiscent of the old Narnia, seems to be in a process of continual rebirth as they run further up and further in to explore. The children have trouble understanding exactly what is happening until Mr. Tumnus, the faun, tells Lucy, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” After taking a long look around, she begins to put it into words for herself;

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia …”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”1

Although one could never claim that Lewis’ intent was to apply this metaphor to the realm of Biblical interpretation, it does seem to be especially apropos for this area of theological reflection in particular. The Bible is a text that ←ix | x→generates an amazingly diverse number of interpretations, and the more questions one asks of the text the more unanswered questions seem to appear (like Mr. Tumnus’ larger circle appearing inside of a smaller one). Yet in this field of ostensibly endless investigation there is one approach in particular worth examining in light of its potential ability to develop theological understanding specifically for the next generation of young people: intercultural Bible reading (ICB).

I arrive at this conclusion after spending most of my adult career working in churches and other ministries primarily with young people from their early teens into their late twenties. There are a number of tasks involved in leading ministries for that life stage, but one task which I have tried to keep as a constant has been that of encouraging and facilitating youth to read the Bible for themselves, typically in small groups. Adolescence is a wonderful age for youth to begin recognizing how their story and God’s story meet together, and the Bible contains many passages which provide clear connections to teens’ developmental and social contexts. As helpful as the process can be, however, over the years I have been in many Bible studies where, after the text for discussion has been read, the following conversational thread is repeated ad infinitum:

Youth A:I think it means _____. What do you think it means?

Youth B:Oh. Well, I think it means _____ because _____.

Youth C:Hmm. That’s interesting. I think it really means _____. What about you over there—what do you think it means?

When I first started working with youth, these exchanges were frustrating for me as I watched the conversation move from what I perceived to be one uninformed opinion to another. And by uninformed, I mean merely that—the teens rarely had a specific agenda embedded in their opinions, yet they also were not typically in the habit of consulting commentaries or academic journals to form their opinions as to how a particular passage in the Bible should be interpreted. As my years in ministry to this age group continued, however, I started to realize that youth who spent time in these Bible reading groups (typically meeting together once a week) seemed to have a tendency to stay more committed to their faith even as they moved on into adulthood. One of the motivations for this research, then, has been my growing suspicion that the “simple” activity of reading the Bible together (which is, of course, not actually all that simple) can encourage these adolescents toward spiritual ←x | xi→maturity through the process of dialogue and exchange inherent in the process of reading the Bible with others in a group.

As I began to pursue further theological studies, my curiosity about the effect of Bible reading on youth was piqued again by a question which was asked in one of my initial classes at the Vrije Universitie by Professor Dr. Hans de Wit. It was program comprised primarily of international students from around the globe which focused on the study of cross-cultural and contextual theology, and in the initial class he asked a very simple yet pointed question; what is the Bible—a text or a meeting place? With my background from a conservative evangelical denomination in the U.S., I could of course agree that the Bible is first and foremost a text. Yet my years in ministry, and my own convictions, had led me to also see that although the Bible is indeed a text, the way it functions in the practices of faith of which I had been a part was more as a meeting place, specifically between God and people and people and each other. When as a class we began to discuss studies where groups of people from different cultural and/or socio-economic backgrounds interacted with each other about Biblical passages, I began to wonder more about how youth could function in Bible reading groups of that kind. Because those reading interactions bring with them a certain level of conflict and challenge to each person’s personally held beliefs and convictions, they presented a clear opportunity for change and growth in the aftermath which some participants seemed to have welcomed and others saw as threatening. Yet no matter the response of the participants, the exchanges had value for those involved by opening up new understandings about the role their own cultural perspective plays in how they interpret the Bible. The studies we examined at that time, however, were primarily focused on adult participants. As a result of spending time studying these projects, my question, which in turn became the motivation for this project, ended up becoming simply this: What, if any, effect does intercultural Bible reading have on the spiritual growth of adolescents? The outcome of the multi-year search for an answer to that question you now hold in your hands.

In attempting to carefully, clearly, and with intentional modesty, propose how intercultural Bible reading affected the spiritual growth of adolescents, the discussion is arranged in what will hopefully be a helpful format. Chapters 1 and 2 present the context of the study and provide clarity in understanding the essential components. Chapters 3 and 4 are focused on the actual study itself and elaborate on the research method as well as the experiences of the participating groups. Chapters 5 through 8 highlight the discoveries of the study before chapter 9 shows how ICB with adolescents can ←xi | xii→be a process adapted to serve in motivating the spiritual growth of youth in their local communities of faith.

And now, in the words of Lewis’ Mr. Tumnus, it is time to go further up and further in.


1 1Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Harper Collins, 1956) p. 226.


Lewis, C. S., The Last Battle. New York: Harper Collins, 1956.←0 | 1→

. 1 .

Understanding Intercultural Bible Reading

Hans Christian Andersen’s classic children’s story “The Ugly Duckling” is a well-known tale of a mother duck who decides that she must have hatched a turkey egg by mistake when she takes her first look at the gangly, oversized hatchling that emerges from her clutch of eggs. After a brief swim, though, she realizes the duckling (who is “not so very ugly after all if you look at him properly”)1 cannot possibly be a turkey. Once they arrive in the farmyard, however, the other animals so harass the ugly duckling that he flies out into the wild moor where he receives even more rejection from those he happens upon. At one point he watches swans take flight overhead and feels “quite a strange sensation,” but the moment passes and he ends up barely surviving through the winter by lying in the bushes all alone. When the spring arrives, he finds he is at last able to fly, and seeing swans once again he approaches them only in the hope that they will kill him and end his misery. Yet as he bends his head down to the surface of the water in anticipation of his death, he sees his own image no longer as a dark, gray bird, but as a graceful and beautiful swan. The story finishes with Andersen writing, “He did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds.”2←3 | 4→

The story continues to endure perhaps because nothing captures the human imagination like the final triumph of those who have been ignored and left on the fringes, a state in which many of us unfortunately find ourselves at one time or another. When it comes to examining the history and development of Christian theology, sad to say, it becomes apparent that as a discipline it, too, has been slow to welcome certain groups into the arena of theological discourse especially if those groups have not matched neatly with a Western academic paradigm. While this fact has of course been changing, the reality is that Christian theology as a whole tends to miss out on the perspectives which the many Bible readers worldwide have to offer. As we begin to take a look at understanding how adolescents fare in the intercultural Bible reading process, this chapter will help to set the stage by taking a look at how intercultural Bible reading (ICB) began as an attempt to remedy one of theology’s long-standing weaknesses. We’ll examine the essential hermeneutic foundations of the method and examine the practice of reading the Bible with “ordinary readers” as exemplified by two theologians who have helped in the development of the process. Finally, an instance of ICB will then be explained through the example of a Bible reading project originating in the Netherlands in order to help us understand how adolescents can act as ordinary readers in their own right.

A shift occurred as Biblical theologians realized that in their earnest pursuit of the historical factuality of Jesus something had been lost. Slowly, awareness began to dawn that perhaps the writers of the Bible were not especially concerned with historicity in the same way that modernity was, and that by asking the question of veracity in the way in which modernity defined it (as correct information) interpreters were missing out on the goal the writers had in mind, namely, transformation.3 A Biblical hermeneutic was perhaps not to be so much about finding one authoritative interpretation (as if that could ever be truly possible), but instead about recognizing the multiplicity of significances found in the Bible as they match up with the human experience of life, God, and self.4

It was a tremendous shift which was influenced by such thinkers as Ricoeur and Gadamer who posited that written texts such as the Bible demand the reader to create an interpretive meaning that is necessarily loosed from whatever meaning the author may have originally had in mind. From this perspective, a written work necessarily renders any claim of complete interpretive surety unrealistic and operationally reductionist. Paul Ricoeur, for instance, argues that a move toward post-critical naiveté is the only way ←4 | 5→to bring a restorative hermeneutic which can recognize the validity of the “fusion of horizons” where the world of the reader and the world of the text merge into each other as a text is being read. These horizons merge in spite of the spatial and temporal boundaries which keep the original author’s intent somewhat outside of the interpretive process, so for Ricoeur the search for authorial intent (which has historically been a large component of Biblical hermeneutics) does not necessarily bring value.5 What is written is all that can be known, and as Ricoeur says, “What the text means now matters more than what the author meant when he wrote it.”6 This is not to say, though, that any interpretation can be offered; after all, we know a parking ticket is not a Shakespearean sonnet. So while a text should be liberated from a slavish search for the author’s original intent, the text must still be recognized as a formation of literary genre which has technical rules presiding over its production and application.7 Thus every text has within itself imposed limits according to its composition and style, and recognizing a text’s literary genre is invaluable for understanding both the content of the text and the ways in which the reader should legitimately interpret it.8 This recognition is a necessity in the interpretive process, yet it does not change the fact that, for Ricoeur, even with the limitations of style and composition the text itself can still have multivalent meanings.

Ricoeur’s significant work began in the 1970s, and his contribution to Biblical hermeneutics from that point on was his encouragement for scholars to shift from an almost singular pursuit of settling questions of historicity and intent to acknowledging what the text as it now stands means to the contemporary reader.9 Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work, which preceded Ricoeur’s, took a slightly different perspective in that he used the analogy of dialogue as his main metaphor for explaining textual interpretation.10 For Gadamer, the back and forth action of a conversation is an accurate corollary to the back and forth action which he sees occurring between text and reader as a middle space opens for exchange between the two. This space between text and reader then becomes the hermeneutic opening in which Gadamer posits that interpretive meaning is made.11 In this back and forth dialogue with the text, the reader’s preconceptions are challenged and the text’s past interpretations are disputed in such a way that the text eventually serves to illuminate the present while itself being illuminated to give newer (yet still faithful) shades of meaning than the author could have foreseen.12 Gadamer’s view is that the goal of interpreting a text, therefore, is not simply to agree with what traditional interpretation has found, but for the text and present reader to come ←5 | 6→together to an understanding about the subject that is current, active, and necessarily contemporary.13

As the acceptance of these different approaches to the hermeneutical task grew within theological circles, there was another development taking place in Latin America in the 1970s which sought to encourage “ordinary readers” to share their insights from their conditions of poverty, repression, and newly-recognized ecclesial openness.14 Carlos Mesters, a Carmelite priest serving among the poor in Brazil, began listening to the interpretations of his parishioners and as he did he began to recognize the value of these typically overlooked Biblical interpretations.

For Mesters, the way poor parishioners in his context read the Bible was a “re-appropriation” of sorts from the tightly-held interpretive authority of traditional European scholarship. The result of Mesters’ influence was that, instead of looking for an external authority to validate their readings, his parishioners were taking the Bible into their own hands to read it from their own position of suffering and struggle.15 The fruit of this approach was that their understanding of the text became intimately married to their everyday situations of oppression, repression, persecution, and exclusion from both political and religious systems of power.16 Mesters summarizes this process by explaining that his objective was not to interpret the Bible, but to interpret life with the help of the Bible.17 The text is not to be dissected for dry theological or historical review, but rather it is the reader’s life which is to be the subject of the vivisection. Mesters writes that God’s revelation through Scripture to those ordinary readers became a present reality rather than a historical remembrance, and it was in this shift that Mesters saw the potential for the present world to be transformed into a “great theophany” of voices proclaiming that God’s Kingdom has come.18

Because he was so convinced of the power of this interpretive stance to bring with it Kingdom transformation in his country, Mesters began systematically incorporating the concept and practice of what became known as “Base Ecclesial Communities” (CEB’s) wherein he could encourage immediate obedience to the discoveries that ordinary readers were making in their Bible readings. These CEB’s, then, were designed to bring together Roman Catholic priests, nuns, and lay people in impoverished areas to read the Bible together, pray, and work toward a common vision of social justice. In these groups the Bible was to be read as a community reading, oriented to the present, as an active conduit for the Holy Spirit to motivate readers toward an active, faithful response that encompassed political, social, economic, and ←6 | 7→practical responses. It should be read from the people’s position of oppression in that society and should not be limited to only cognitive pursuits like sermons and lectures.19

While the lasting impact of these CEB communities has been a source for scholarly debate, their impact both in terms of changing the religious landscape of Latin America and the dynamics of the relationship between clergy and laity is still in effect.20 Mesters’ theological commitment to recognize the worth of the common Bible reader helped speed on a movement which was seeking to change the definition of Christianity from a hierarchically imposed system of beliefs to a fully encompassing life of faith, and through his influence others gradually began to tune their ears to hear this new source of inspiration and interpretation.21


XII, 218
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 218 pp.

Biographical notes

Taggert Wolverton (Author)

Taggert E. Wolverton is an ordained minister who also currently teaches courses in religion and Christianity at the University of South Carolina, Aiken and the University of South Carolina, Columbia. He received his MTh and PhD from Vrije Universiteit (VU University), Amsterdam.


Title: An Intimate Revelation
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232 pages