Culture interprets Scriptures

I have been studying the Bible the past two months or so with an eye towards cultural bias in interpretation. Partly this started with my daughter and her husband in a discussion about what it means to have an abundant life. I have become acutely aware that our cultural background flavors our “understanding”.

The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. John 10:10 My daughter said abundant life meant filled with peace and satisfaction even in the face of adversity. Her husband disagreed and said it means to have more wealth and prosperity. Both were reflecting their upbringing, or culture.

Now if you think about it, you might ask so what’s the big deal? We have been taught that the Holy Spirit will teach every believer. Don’t we believe in the priesthood of the individual believer? So if we follow this logic, abundance might be huge money for some while for others it might be intangible for others. Each to his own interpretation? (brainwashed?)

In the United States, we have a whole group of preachers and teachers proclaiming that God’s blessings on the true believer are material. In other words if you are truly following God, He will bless you financially.

Yet as I see the faith of the Church in Kenya, and witness the joy and the spirit they have, I have to wonder if the prosperity we have isn’t really a curse. In many countries, the average household income is way below our poverty level even after adjusting for cultural differences. I have heard several missionaries tell that one meal a day is normal and two, is luxury. I have photographs of a normal dinner table with serving for 4. Compared to many single servings in our restaurants, their meal for 4 is less than one serving here in “affluentville”.

The Bible was written in Hebrew or Greek. Besides the translation difficulties, there was also the cultural setting in which it was written. Much of it was written during times when slavery was dominant. Dress codes, foot washing, farming rules and customs, all are seen in the discussions of the Scriptures. Many don’t directly apply to our culture today.

In fact, the Scriptures do not touch many social injustices! During the Roman Empire (as well as many OT kingdoms) the government was really bad, mean, cruel, evil… Yet the Scriptures do not teach or lead us into rebellion, revolt, or disobedience. References in the Bible instead teach to the heart attitude of slaves toward masters and masters toward slaves. It teaches that when a soldier demands you carry his load, you do it cheerfully and go extra distance. Scriptures do not teach social disobedience!

I had a devotion a while back that told of a ladies Bible Study in a American Christian’s home in Hong Cong. The point of the whole devotion was focused around how our cultural upbringing flavors our understanding of the Scriptures. The lady said that those Christians with a “western” mentality tended to emphasize Paul’s Teachings of “don’t work/don’t eat”; while those with an Asian mentality tended to emphasize give freely, help the poor. One person could watch a relative struggle and turn away, and the other tended to live in extended family settings to help all under the roof.

It is so easy to fall back to comfortable cultural interpretations. It is easy to apply our 21st century mentality to the scriptures. It is easy to jump on the band wagon so to speak, and get all excited over perceived wrongs that some splinter group has pointed out. It is much harder to cut through cultural biases and find the real message of the Gospel written to us today.

Try this week to really read about a Christian group in a different culture and economic strata. Compare your daily Christianity with that of the Churches in other parts of the world. Openly ask The Holy Spirit to illuminate to you, the cultural pollutions we carry in our beliefs. See if this would help you to see the Gospel in a new light.

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