What is Hermeneutics?
At Knox college too, when I did internship, at that moment, I was struggling with very private ties to faith, very individualistic faith, very emotional faith. I was kind of questioning whether that was authentic. I started to think about faith that serves others? How about social justice? All these questions came. So during that internship, there was another turning point for me, it was a kind of maturing faith stage. Until then it was very emotional, passionate. From that point on, it was more reflective and I was very interested in hermeneutical study, hermeneutics, meaning interpretation, interpreting the Scripture and interpreting life and how Scripture and life can be connected. I was very interested in that process.
What other aspects of faith were you interested in?
Also I was reflecting on my immigrant life too, because we are very marginalized, and then I looked into immigration theology. There was not much, so I borrowed a voice from women’s feminist study and also liberation theology and black theology. All these voices I kind of collected to understand my immigrant life because we didn’t have our own voices at that time.
What sparked your interest in Hermeneutics and scripture?
As I read a Scripture and then looked at the church, I thought I felt so foreign. The church was so different from the Scripture. The church was so different from Jesus, the Jesus that I encountered in the Scripture. He gave such a good life, good message to humanity and the church. Somehow, I don’t see that freedom. I don’t see that excitement of Jesus, the freedom that Jesus gave. That’s why I wanted to really dig into who Jesus was and I wanted to get to the closest document to this man, Jesus, his life. He was so different from any other person that I know, and I wanted to get closest to this man, to this person. The closest document was the Scripture. That’s why I wanted to study Scripture to study about this person, Jesus, who gave us that freedom and who gave us that precious message for life.
At the time I believed that we interpreted the Bible in the wrong way, only in a religious way. I realized that the Bible has implications for life, good life, and I wanted to dig into that message of good life for anyone, whether you’re a devout Christian or not. It has left a message for humanity, a message for every human being. It is a good message for that. I wanted to dig out and then share that with the people. The second generation is especially, you know, you’re really working hard to make money and to build yourself in this society, go up the ladder, but that’s not everything about a good life. There’s so much of a bigger life out there, and then you can have a much more fulfilling life. You don’t need to forget about your career. You can do well in Korea, but that’s not everything. There are much bigger things in life. I wanted to share that with the second generation, give them the meaning and purpose, spiritual meaning and purpose, not just personal ambition, but also living out a good spiritual life.
How does scripture enhance our life experience?
I think for me, I went through a lot of different religious experiences: some charismatic experiences, some very evangelical – evangelical experiences are very emotional. All of that I experienced. But at the end of the day, I wanted to find out what it meant. I said a lot of things, but I wanted to know what it meant. A lot of second generation and first generation too, they say these are the answers – in that beautiful language that they have used for themselves, for their beliefs – but what did they really understand? So I think it was my curiosity over the years of wanting to understand what it really meant [that led to these thoughts]. Your experience will not change you; your understanding of your experience will change you. How you understand your experience has a more profound effect than what you actually experience.
Some people interpret what they experience in a distorted way, so their experience becomes dehumanizing, or has a negative effect on them. But when you understand or interpret your situation in a spiritual way – in the way that Jesus taught us – your experience can be liberating. It really enhances your understanding of life, understanding of yourself, understanding of other people and understanding of God. It expands your understanding. So what you are experiencing is very important, but more important is how you interpret what you’re experiencing. I was very much curious about how we interpret our own situations and our own experience, and then those things really helped me delve deeper into the scripture study.
In what ways can the scripture be understood?
That understanding is not really a cerebral understanding. It’s not really from your brain. You understand, and then somehow connect. Something happens and your soul meets the Spirit of the Word and they dance together. And then when that happens, there is a liberating moment that people experience. So, that’s what I experienced about myself. So in my Bible study method, the first level is intellectual understanding. I mean, you have to understand what the word means, the historical context and what the culture was at that time. And then what is he or Paul trying to say? What is Jesus trying to say? You need to understand first intellectually; you understand what it means. And then the next level is spiritual understanding. It’s not really what it means, but what does it mean to you personally?
Maybe I need to be more gentle? That there is a spiritual message and that includes a moral message too. So that’s the next level – that spiritual understanding. So the first one is intellectual understanding, and the second one is spiritual understanding. And the third one, I think it’s most important, but also it’s rare, so I didn’t know what to call that level – that level is connectedness. Somehow you have this “aha” moment, “Ah, now I understand”. That level – I didn’t know how to name that. And then I kind of came on with the word “sacramental understanding.” A sacrament is God’s grace through the medium of physical object costs. In the Protestant tradition, water and also bread and wine are sacramental elements. So I use the Word as a sacramental element. Through the physical Word that grace comes to us.
So that sacramental understanding is where you say “aha.” That’s where your soul meets with the Spirit of the Word, and they’re connected. You feel connected, and then that opens your eyes, expands your life and expands your understanding. The “Ah now I understand” level. So these three levels, I’ve experienced myself. I want all my Bible studies to get to that level. Some Bible studies, we just finished at the spiritual level. But in other Bible studies, we get to that sacramental level – some people cry and some people are deeply in awe because they encounter their own real self in a way. So that sacramental understanding is where liberation, where true freedom happens.
The Christian life is not about learning the Word and using it for yourself. For example, I often use this example: when you go to Ikea, you buy furniture and they give you the manual. To assemble this furniture, you just follow it one by one: you put A together, you put two together and then, you make furniture out of it. But the Bible is not like that. It’s not a manual. “Oh, Corinthians says this, and then Philippians says this, and Mark says this, so I’ll combine it all and okay, I’m going to use this for building my life.” That’s not how it happens. Somehow you encounter the Living Christ in studying the Scripture and that Word transforms you. So the Word doesn’t become the object, the Word becomes the subject, and I become the object of change. So I don’t use the Word, but the Word transforms me. That kind of understanding is happening at the sacramental level. It’s a much deeper level of understanding the Scripture. A lot of times we’ve finished at the intellectual level, we don’t even get to the spiritual level. But beyond the spiritual level, there is a kind of experiential level or sacramental level. So there are layers of understanding the Scripture.
How was the experience of introducing this approach to scripture to the church?
At first when I did this kind of Bible study, especially a lot of KSM people, they said, “Moksanim! Just tell us what to do!”, “Just tell us what to do!”, “What does this Scripture mean?”. Because I asked a lot of questions: “What does it mean to you?” and, “Why did Jesus say this here?”, “Why did Peter respond in that way?”. I asked a lot of questions and they weren’t really used to that kind of Bible study. They just want the minister to tell them what to believe, what the particular Scripture passage meant. I asked a lot of questions and later they got used to it. It took about 10 years just to get to that level of interacting with each other so that they could start exploring the Scripture on their own. When you read the Scripture, sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.
So, when you ask the right questions, the Scripture reveals the answer to you. Questions come depending on your situation too, depending on where you are, in terms of your spirituality, in terms of your personal, social circumstance. Certain words come to you, certain phrases come to you and certain images come to you more vividly than before because you’re going through a particular life experience. Through that, you encounter the Living Christ and sometimes Christ heals you, touches you, speaks to you and opens up your imagination.
Through bible studies, what have you learned about the nature of faith?
Sometimes in Bible studies, it is almost like a healing session. We encounter our own demons sometimes or our own darkness – not with fear, but with grace. When you encounter your own demons and your own darkness with grace, that’s where healing happens. But when you encounter your own demons with fear, then it paralyzes you, it doesn’t heal. When you encounter your own faults, shortcomings and sins and darkness, with grace that’s when transformation happens. These transformations did happen [during Bible studies], and I saw people [go through them]. It takes a long time of course, and then also, just because it happened once doesn’t mean that you’ll be there forever. Sometimes you go back again. So it continues. I think it is a process, a spiritual discipline of being transformed.
Everyone is dealing with their own vulnerability, but it’s scary to face your own vulnerability. I think that courage is to face your own vulnerability and it’s alright to be weak. It is all right to be vulnerable. I think that his strength in a way. That is courage – to be able to embrace your own weaknesses. That is within the scripture very much. Saint Paul said “When I’m weak, I’m strong.” The spiritual message is there, but that also is a very important social and personal message to all of us, and how to live our lives. So when we are able to embrace our own weaknesses, the weaknesses will not defeat us anymore. We can deal with our own weaknesses. We can become stronger in doubt. So through Bible studies and through the Scripture, we can embrace [our vulnerabilities]. We have strength. We can have strength and courage to be able to embrace our own vulnerability and weaknesses and move on. That’s what I learned about every person- every person is dealing with their own kind of weaknesses.
Scripture has a lot of treasures within it, to teach us about life, about ourselves. Through the Scripture, we can embrace and deal with our own struggles in a very spiritual way. We are spiritual beings and we need to really look at ourselves, not just from a social point of view.
Going to school is important. Studying hard is important, but that’s not everything about life. The way you relate to your friends, the way you relate to your parents, the way you relate to your children. All of these things require “insights”, to live a good, happy, and meaningful life. Ultimately, if life is not meaningful, why live? It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s got to be meaningful and happy and enjoyable, and also liberating. There are some things that really oppress us and some unnamed things that oppress us and through the Scripture, we can name those things. When we start naming them, we can go through the process of being liberated from these things. That’s why when Jesus met a demon possessed man he asked, “What is your name?” Jesus wants you to name it. We need to name our own demons. We need to name our own shortcomings and weaknesses. It’s all right to name our own weaknesses. We don’t need to hide them all the time and bury them. We cannot bury them. When you bury them, it affects you more than before. All these insights are in the Scripture. We don’t come up with our own wisdom, but there are a lot of good things within the Scripture. That’s why I thought it is very important to study the word for the congregation – so that they can live a meaningful life in an immigrant situation. The immigrant situation is much more than economical or social life. It requires much more than that.
How was your experience of studying scripture and hermeneutics in the women’s bible study?
Rev. In Kee Kim: In the beginning I talked a lot about context and how to think, how to interpret, how to look at this passage. So I did a lot of talking in the beginning, but latter years, around more than 10 years, the latter years, I didn’t even have to speak. I just raised one question. Their reflection came from all over the place. They were really reflecting on their lives. So scripture did not just exist by itself in isolation, the Scripture and their life were engaged together. They finally saw that kind of Scripture, and it was very exciting because it was so engaging. So because the church is so isolated in the institutions, they didn’t reflect on life in general. They only talked about religious life, but now they really looked at life. So Catholics and Protestants gathered together, there was no difference. We are all aiming for a good life, a meaningful life, an abundant life. They were able to share regardless of denomination, we were able to share our struggles, our problems, our joy of overcoming our problems and our joy, of finding your hope in life. Quite often we had those sacramental moments. All of us, there was no distinction between teacher and the student. We all became students of the word. We all heard of the word rather, there was no speaker. Sometimes there were emotional moments and also they were able to share their deep struggles too. So it wasn’t at all surface level, we were going down deep and nobody forced or coerced anyone to speak, we let the spirit guide us and lead us. So we had those moments.
We had a minister at the latter part of that Bible study, Rev. Jane Yoon. She was an associate pastor here. She started joining and then when she left our church, she told me, you know, that Bible study was like a therapy session. Yes. It was like a therapy session because our life and our true self, I was engaged in that Bible study. So we tasted what it meant to have a good hermeneutics interpretation of the Scripture.
Kris Jun: I think at some point, I told you this before, but I thought I have to be good to be loved by God. I always have this thought that I have to be better, I have to do good things to be favoured by him. But at one Bible study, Rev. Kim told me that God is good. God is just loving. So that regardless of who you are, he’s just loving. That’s why he loves you. So it’s nothing to do with who you are, it’s his nature that loves you. And hearing that gives me such freedom. Unconsciously, I was in bondage and always tried to be good. I have to be a good person. And there’s a desire, but at that moment, I realized that I just have to be myself and that’s good enough. And that gives me such freedom.
How was your experience of studying scripture and hermeneutics in the Tuesday Bible Study?
Rev. In Kee Kim: All of a sudden out of nowhere, you approached me Simon. yYou wanted to have a Bible study. I didn’t even have to ask you, and at that time, you didn’t go to church. I mean, you weren’t as devoted as you are today. You were born into church life and you grew up in the church all your life. But during that time you were kind of disillusioned about this institutional church, and that was exactly what I was struggling with too. A lot of second generation is disillusioned, like you, who left the church – not because they don’t have faith, not because they don’t believe in God, not because they are not interested, but they were so disillusioned and a lot of them left the church. Like you said there are a group of people like that who want to have Bible study but not the kind of traditional Bible study, but they really want to say what the Scripture says. So that’s how Tuesday Bible study started. Never a single time did I bring up your generation being disillusioned, I never told you guys how I felt about how institutionalized church has become, because I didn’t want to say that. In the end, they all came to church. A lot of them came to church and some people became elders, and you Simon, you became a minister.
And then, you know, those are fruits. This TBS group, when they started coming to church, they started rubbing off the whole congregation. At that time, the ESM congregation was kind of dwindling, you know, and then a fresh group came in and energized the ESM congregation. So at that time, the ESM congregation was quite encouraged by their presence. So these Bible studies, the effect is not to remain on that one person who receives the Bible study, and not because they want to affect others, but their existence becomes more of sharing in a way. It is affecting other people and because they themselves are happy and joyful, so that rubs off on them.
Grace Bai: Oh, TBS has become like a big part of my life. I guess, without really knowing it. It’s been, I think over 10 years now, but it’s helped me understand or helped me think through God in my life – not only from a personal perspective, like my personal relationship with God, but also looking at it more globally, largely. Being Christian is not just about my God and me, but it is equally as important as knowing how to live in community with others. So that is one and the same. I think that going through the studies every week, critically thinking about what it actually means – a lot of the traditional teachings that we grew up with in Sunday school is not necessarily all there is. There’s actually way more to it than we realize. TBS has helped me learn more deeply about the texts in the Bible, the stories that are being told, what’s actually happening there, and what it means for me and what it means for us as people. That really helped me shape the way that I see myself and myself in the world.
I think the Scripture is a great treasure that God has left for us to look into, to study, to meditate, to be our food for our survival and for our existence, for our nourishment. I think in the future, I hope that our smart, brilliant second generation may really get into the Scripture and study it because there is a lot of good stuff there for them. You don’t need to be a preacher, you don’t need to go to the seminary, you don’t need to be a minister to understand the Scripture. Anybody can really delve into the Scripture. I hope that they can really take their Scripture study seriously and their lives will be blessed in many ways.
Table of Contents
- Community of the Word: 25 Years of St. Timothy Presbyterian Church
- Life and Ministry of Rev. In Kee Kim
- Early Years and Ministry
- Formation and Early Years of Living Stone (1992-1996)
- Amalgamation and North York Living Stone (1996-2000)
- Becoming St. Timothy (2001)
- Growing Roots and Growth (2001-2010)
- Maturation into Spiritual Community (2010-2020)
- Pandemic and What Comes Next (2020-Beyond)
- Hermeneutics and Approach to Scripture
- How the Community Shaped Them: Stories from Members
- Reflections from Rev. Jane Yoon
- The Message of St. Timothy
- Life and Ministry of Rev. In Kee Kim