There are dozens (if not hundreds) of questions that might be asked of a text when considering a mission hermeneutic. The question, How may this text be overheard? is deliberately ambiguous in order to suggest two themes, both of which are focused on a person or community who do not (yet) believe in Jesus Christ and, so, would not hold that the text in from of them is inspired, authoritative or authentic. The two themes are these:
1. How might this text be overheard? asks the believing community to consider how the unbelieving community can gain an opportunity to encounter this particular text of the Bible. There may well be different approaches for different texts. This question is being answered in a variety of ways this year in the UK because of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. The best place to look for more on this is the Biblefresh website
And perhaps our main question is not just one of exposure to ‘unbelieving communities’. Maybe it should be broadened to ask, How could this text be engaged with in fresh ways by believers?
2. How might this text be overheard? asks the believing community to consider the ways in which a text may be understood or misunderstood if ‘overheard’ by an unbelieving individual or community. This will certainly evoke different responses for different texts but, of course, the answer will be different even for a single text because different people will respond in different ways according to their own contexts and life experiences.
This is in part a prelude to apologetics but I think it is deeper that that. It asks us to consider what obstacles there might be (humanly speaking) to a clear understanding of a text. What technical words or jargon would need to be explained (e.g., with a text like Romans 4)? What background would they need to know to make sense of it in context (e.g., if it were part-way through a narrative)? What if their worldview radically misinterpreted a key term (e.g., a Muslim reading that Jesus is the Son of God)?
In conclusion, at the very least asking the question, How might this text be overheard? forces us to consider ‘the other’. While we are before God, reading and listening to the text, we are reminded that we do so as God’s missional people, tasked with participating in God’s mission to bring to him those for whom the Bible is not yet seen as the words of life.
And, of course, this brings us back (once again!) to the question of Bible Translation. For 340 million people, the first step to answering the question, How may this text be overheard? is, ‘Begin translating the Bible into their heart language’.