Born in Peru, Spectrum columnist Hanz Gutierrez Salazar has advanced degrees in theology, medicine, and music. He teaches in the seminary program at the Italian Adventist University in Florence, commonly called “Villa Aurora.” His new book, Beyond the Bible, Beyond the West: The “Eros” of Interpretation (2023), was just released by Mimesis International, a European publishing house with a cosmopolitan focus and connections to influential intellectuals and many Italian universities.
At 548 pages, the book's intellectual rigor, aesthetic appeal, and international significance offer a fresh biblical approach. If circulated widely, its heft could establish Hanz Gutierrez Salazar as the Herbert Blomstedt of hermeneutics—an Adventist who contributes beauty beyond borders.
Calling it “ambitious and learned” in his back cover book endorsement, Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago, writes that the book “represents an admirable rethinking of biblical interpretation. It reaches outward from the West’s most foundational text to diagnose the modern world’s intellectual and cultural malaise.”
Gutierrez argues that the history of Western biblical hermeneutics and the history of Western culture are opposite sides of the same broken coin; therefore, we would do well to move beyond both toward a hermeneutics of the South.Some might contend the book’s thesis merely argues that a biblical passage’s meaning is found in the dynamic interaction between the text and reader, in what Gutierrez calls the “hermeneutical circle.” This is right but not right enough. Stating the book’s central argument this way limits Gutierrez’s many cultural observations. One of these is that the sharp difference between reader and text is related to the irreducible dualism of mind and matter that has permeated the West for centuries.
It might seem that the phrase “beyond the Bible” means Gutierrez is going against the text altogether. It doesn’t. It means that the Bible is not the only proper source of wisdom—that its diverse contents emerged from many cultures, all of which were and are different from the contemporary West. Each biblical passage has more than one fixed and universally binding meaning, and a proper reading depends upon what a community of readers brings to it. This does not mean that readers can make the text say anything they want but rather that the overall biblical narrative moves in traceable religious and ethical ways. Gutierrez argues that we should move in the same direction.
I was tempted to think that, for Gutierrez, “beyond the West” also meant going against the Western world. Although he says that the West has many praiseworthy characteristics, he does not expound upon them in any detail. Instead, he observes with evident disapproval that the West tends to be materialistic, reductionistic, individualistic, and imperialistic as well as obsessed with productivity, predictability, homogeneity, and certainty. He says little or nothing that is critical of the South.
However, I have not yielded to this tempting assumption for at least two reasons. One of them is that Gutierrez is from the South, and I am from the West. Therefore, we inevitably see some things differently. The other is that Gutierrez is a precise wordsmith in at least five modern languages: Spanish, English, Italian, German, and French. If he had wanted to say that he was “against” the West, he could easily have found a way to do so.
Reasoning unabashedly from the social location of his youthful years in Peru, Gutierrez challenges the West with his “erotic hermeneutics of the South,” in which loving means “wholistic” or “total” passion, as it did for the Greeks.
Gutierrez sometimes advances his line of thought by interpreting biblical passages. My favorite is his exposition of Psalm 23 where he explores the idea that both God and human beings are essentially differentiated or are, in their basic natures, complex and paradoxical. Reduced from 1,643 words to 332, here is part of his analysis:
We are dealing with a heterogeneous psalm. It is heterogeneous because it is built not on a single metaphor but on two. One is the “shepherd,” who leads his sheep with heroism and courage. The other is the “housewife” who prepares a table for her diners with care and emotional involvement.
Psalm 23 is a psalm that makes possible the sense, not only the literary sense, but especially the ontological sense of a differentiated God. Let us pause to consider this dual scenario.
Behind the gentleness and goodness of the “good shepherd,” the metaphor presupposes something more important that common reading has too often overlooked. This is the contrasting profile of a shepherd who is courageous and ready for action, without fear or dread, even a little reckless. Everyone knows, enemies and wild beasts alike, that to approach his sheep, to steal or mistreat them, would immediately trigger such a reaction in him as to make him unapproachable.
God in the guise of this “welcoming housewife” is not heroic and exceptional in a time of emergency. Hers is a discreet and customary intervention in a regular, daily rhythm of life. To achieve it, she must leverage not only her organizational skills but also her spontaneity, instinct, and creativity, because a real celebration cannot be prepared by hard work or great planning alone. Passion and imagination are needed.
A new image of God, such as the one this psalm conveys to us, cannot remain harmless and inoffensive. It also overwhelms the outline of what human beings are called to be. We are sheep, says the first metaphor. We need only to listen and follow, sometimes without even understanding. In the second metaphor, the sheep become people. They become honored guests of the God who motivates them and requires courage from them to speak, to think, to share, to celebrate.
This psalm emphasizes, in parallel with the description of God, the complexity, paradox and contradictions of every human reality, of churches and individuals.
With regard to the hermeneutical circle, some readers may insist that locating a passage’s meaning—neither in the text nor in the reader but rather in the dynamic interaction of the two—is necessary but not sufficient. Some controls are also needed, they will say, to protect everyone against the frequent harm caused by unchecked intuitions and unchallenged impressions guided by the Holy Spirit.
One way of responding to this criticism would be to employ two hermeneutical circles instead of one. The first circle would be the dynamic interaction between the reader and the text as Gutierrez describes it. The second circle would consist of hermeneutical controls that would surround the first circle like a band or belt.
Although doing this might have benefits, it would certainly have a big cost as well. It would ultimately cause a return from the flexibility, spontaneity, and diversity of the South to the rigidity, predictability, and uniformity of the West.
The final paragraph of this book consists of Gutierrez’s heartfelt words of wisdom for the South:
The hermeneutics of the South, of which we have tried to trace a possible outline, which already exists in the present as traces but at the same time do not yet exist because they are still on the way, can in their witness remain persuasive only under two conditions. First, if they remain aware of their fragility and partiality and make these their beacon and motivation. Second, if they remain witnesses to life, its complexity, ambivalence and paradox, as a sign of its mystery and unavailability, in listening and obeying the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of life.
David Larson is an emeritus professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.
Title image by Spectrum. Photos from Mimesis International and leggere per nondimenticare.
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