Mark Allan Powell, a New Testament professor and author of 16 scholarly books, has traveled the world and noticed how different communities hear different things when listening to the same biblical story.
Out of this experience, he observes that “readers contribute to the process of interpretation.” He illustrates his point in light of a popular story found in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In the story often called the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells of a young man who leaves home with his inheritance before his father has even died. He goes off to a far away land, falls upon hard times, finds himself very hungry and returns home to the gracious welcome of his father.
Powell tried a global experiment with this story. He asked students in a North American school why the young boy was hungry. Most answered because “he squandered his money.” This is mentioned in the text in verse 13.
When Powell asked the same question to Eastern Europeans, a new answer surfaced. “The young man was hungry because there was a famine in the land.” This answer is based on what Jesus says in verse 14. These people had endured a famine and the mention of famine in the story got their attention.
When Powell was in Tanzania, he wanted to see if seminarians there would emphasize squandering or famine so he asked them why the young man was hungry. He heard echoes of the earlier responses of famine and squandering, but the most common response was “because no one gave him anything to eat.” These people who personally knew the plight of refugees focused on what is mentioned in verse 16.
All three of these answers are rooted in the story as Jesus told it, but the context of the hearers shaped their hearing. (An account of these conversations can be found in Powell’s book, “What Do They Hear?”)
This will be the theme that Powell will address in his public talk, “Let the Reader Understand: Interpreting the Bible as the Bible Interprets Us.” Powell is an engaging speaker who will remind us that together we understand more together than we do alone.
Signs of both his commitment and style run throughout his work. At times, his footnotes abandon scholarly expectations and share interpretation shaping anecdotes that are very entertaining.
In “Chasing the Eastern Star,” for example, he tells of a chance encounter with the band Counting Crows before they became famous. At the end of the same book, he allowed people whose thoughts he had critiqued in his writing to respond to his statements. Clearly, he really believes in making sure there is room for many voices in any conversation.
This presentation is part of the Leonard Haas Lecture Series. Haas served as president (1959-71) and then chancellor (1973-80) of UW-Eau Claire. He was also a faithful member of Grace Lutheran Church. This series honors a man who brought faith and reason together and taught the value of lifelong learning.