One of the delights of the worldwide fellowship that the Lord Jesus has created by his death and resurrection is to read the Bible with sisters and brothers from different cultures. Here, there is no Gentile or Jew, slave or free, barbarian or Scythian, Aussie or African, bogan or cool, but Christ is all and is in all. We may dance differently; we may not understand each other’s language; yet we can enjoy a palpable unity.
As we read the Bible together, we find ourselves understanding it differently.
But there is also something unnerving about cross-cultural fellowship. For as we read the Bible together, we find ourselves understanding it differently. We read the same words, the same story, the same text. But what we see in the text and how we understand it, depends on the cultural lenses we use to see the world. For example, we all read the same story of the crucifixion of Jesus, but one sees the intense physical pain, another sees the deep shame, while another sees the judgement of God.
This can be exhilarating as we ‘see’ that there is more to the story than we have seen before. But it can also be unsettling: it raises difficult questions; questions like:
- Have my cultural lenses blinkered me from seeing the truth God has revealed?
- Is what I see in the text merely a small, insignificant part of the truth?
- Am I am missing the wood for the trees?
- Have I completely failed to understand what the text is about?
For thoughtful readers of the Bible, these questions are unsettling. For teachers of the Bible, these sorts of questions can undermine our confidence—make us unwilling to open our mouths.
So how do we work out who is right? Often the different ‘readings’ will be complementary, and we can ‘add’ them all together. But just as often, they will be in tension. For example, Is the focus of the passion narratives pain, shame or guilt? Maybe all three are present, but am I free to focus exclusively on the one I see and ignore the others?
For the last 70 years, academic trends in the West have emphasised the inability of culturally conditioned humans to arrive at any ‘objective’ meaning. Gadamer and Foucault kickstarted a revolution in philosophy and literary criticism that attacked the idea that we might hope to understand a text on its own terms. Instead, they insisted, we can only read it from within our cultural prisons.
Not only is it impossible for me to recover the original meaning of a text, now I shouldn’t even try.
The same critical theory has come to see words (including written texts) as weapons of oppression—oppression that must be resisted. So now, it is not only impossible for me to recover the original meaning of a text; I shouldn’t even try. Just read it the way you want to, coloured and controlled by your cultural conditioning
This is the world we inhabit. It can feel like we are swimming in an ocean of uncertainty; blinded by our own cultural blinkers; only able to read the Bible from within our own bunkers. Not only is this deeply unsatisfying for those of us who desperately want to hear what God has revealed to us in his word, it also paralyses us when we try to teach others about the Bible. I might still believe that the Bible is reliable, but all I’ve got is my ‘interpretation’ of it.
Where does that leave us? A couple of partial solutions offer themselves:
- I can simply go with what I do see in the Bible, hoping my myopia hasn’t led me to get it so wrong it is wrong. That does not seem satisfactory when we are dealing with the Word of God by which we live.
- I can spend my life listening to how people from different cultures read the Bible, travelling endlessly and humbly learning to see the world and the Word through their eyes. This approach might expand my horizon, but it is also likely to cause much confusion if I don’t have any way to evaluate and arbitrate these different readings. It will just be one interpretation against another; one world view against another.
Reading with the Original Culture
I think there is a much better solution. And God has already provided it in the Old Testament.
In God’s dealings with the nation of Israel (and the people connected to it), God created a distinct culture. Over a period of 2000 years he set about establishing, building and renovating a relationship with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If culture is the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society, then it is clear that Israel developed its own distinct culture during the period of her history covered by the Old Testament. And this culture was primarily shaped by God himself.
He redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought her to himself. He gave laws that regulated daily life in many aspects, both religiously and socially. He gave his people a home to inhabit where they could enjoy his bountiful provision. He sent prophets to correct them when they sought to create a different culture from the one God prescribed.
Israel was never a perfect expression of the culture God desired, but God’s design for their individual and corporate lives was abundantly clear.
The Right Time, The Right Culture
If this is the case, then it should be clear that the primary culture we need to be concerned with is not our culture or other cultures from around the world but the culture God set up—the culture that forms the context of the Bible and Jesus.
People often wonder why it took so long for God to send his Son into our world to save us. Why was the first century AD the ‘right time’ (Galatians 4:4)? Why didn’t Jesus come 1000 or 2000 years before that? The answer that presents itself most obviously is that it took all those years to establish the cultural foundation that would make it possible to understand Jesus and his mission.
An example may help to explain the point. I was struck recently how the original Passover in Egypt contains the idea of substitutionary sacrifice as atonement for human sin.
From one perspective, the killing of the Passover lamb was unnecessary—God had already demonstrated he was entirely competent to distinguish Israelites from Egyptians. But God made a huge deal of the Passover lamb, with detailed instructions about what, when, how, and what to do with the blood. Those instructions make it clear that, without the death of the lamb, the firstborn of Israel would have died under God’s judgement—just like the Egyptian firstborns.
So God was creating a cultural symbol—an annual memorial that would enculturate the concepts into Israel’s life. He was laying another stone in the foundation—developing a theme, that had already begun with Abraham’s offering of his beloved Isaac, and which would keep coming on through the Day of Atonement and the suffering servant passages.
When we get to Jesus, we can see his death through this cultural lens. We aren’t left to simply compare different interpretations. Nor are we left imprisoned by our own culture.
Thus, when we get to Jesus, we can see his death through this cultural lens. We aren’t left to simply compare different interpretations. Nor are we left imprisoned by our own culture.
Another example came out of a conversation I had with a group of African pastors. We were discussing some of the gospel stories about Jesus, but what I saw in the stories was often very different from what they saw. So I asked, ‘In your culture, what are stories used for?’ The answer was emphatic: ‘In our culture,‘ they said, ‘grandmothers tell stories to teach children how to behave. Stories are used as moral lessons—warnings about the consequences of bad or good behaviour.’
As I thought about my culture, it seemed to me that we don’t tell stories like that much now—the stories we receive through movies and TV shows (and maybe books) are partly escapist entertainment, and partly morality plays about love, fulfilment and ‘follow your heart.’
No wonder I listened to the stories in the Bible differently from my African brothers. But what if we ask, ‘What does God use stories for?’ The Old Testament is not for entertainment (although there are some ripping yarns). Nor is it just for teaching morals. Instead, its stories work together to show the unfurling of God’s determined purpose to save a people for himself—that purpose itself becomes the mirror in which to view the stories.
That means a challenge for both my African brothers and me. Neither of our cultures is the same as that of the Bible.
To be enculturated in God’s Old Testament culture is not an easy, instantaneous task. It takes thoughtful, extensive, intensive reading and meditation. And it can help to have friends from various cultures journey with us in the task. But it is a task that those who teach God’s Word must undertake. And as we make progress in the task, our understanding of the Bible, especially of Jesus, will be built up and enriched. We will grow in confidence that we are seeing what God means us to see. And so, we will speak with greater confidence.
 For some useful insight into the cultural lenses that could give these varying results, see https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/introducing-pain-pleasure-worldview/.