How does culture affect the way we understand Scripture?

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Richards and O'Brien believe this self-centered perspective leads us "to believe that we (meaning I) have a privileged status in God's salvation history. I may not be sure what God's plans are, but I am confident that at the center will be me. We read a verse and say this verse is about me or my country or my time in history." Thankfully, non-Western Christians can help us see that the Bible is not simply about me; it's about Jesus, and it's about us.

Avoiding Icebergs

Non-Western interpretations are not necessarily superior to Western ones. Asian readers are just as apt to misread the Bible as North Americans, as are Africans, Europeans, South Americans, and Australians. Sin's distorting effect skews the vision of all cultures. All human beings view the Bible through cracked, blurred lenses that blind us to biblical meanings, challenges, and beauty that God longs for us to understand and embrace.

Since we inevitably come to the Bible loaded with cultural presuppositions about the nature of reality—some very helpful, some not so helpful—is reading the Bible well a pipedream? Not at all. The remedy for the dangers posed by cultural blinders, the radar we can employ to detect hidden icebergs in our worldview, is the church itself. As we acknowledge humbly our need for the mentoring and guidance of all members of Christ's body—the church past and present—our understanding of the Scripture will expand like a balloon, filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit. The exegetical and theological insights of different members of Christ's church—sprinkled throughout the world's cultures and histories like so many stars—provide the illumination we need to read and understand the Scripture.

Our eyesight brightens and clarifies as we listen to one another—to past believers who have journeyed with Christ before us, and to present-day believers who initially seem so different from us. As we embrace the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in the church's journey through time and humbly receive the Spirit's enlivening of Christ's body around the world, our ability to read the Bible well significantly increases. Richards and O'Brien rightly encourage us, then, to read the Bible as a "global community." By doing so, we can "open the chamber and allow new voices in." And by consciously expanding the circle of our conversation partners, we strengthen each other where we tend to be weak, shortsighted, stunted, or blind.

Christ continues to speak to all Christians and all cultures through the Bible—a text that always points to Jesus himself. We can't stop being North American or Asian, African or South American; our cultural identity and language, though warped by sin, is a gift from God. What we can do, though, is increase our awareness of the cultural and historical settings in which God has graciously and providentially placed us. And we can better appreciate—through immersion in the global Christian family and through books like Misreading Scripture—how these settings help and hinder our understanding of the Bible.

Christopher Hall is chancellor of Eastern University, dean of Palmer Theological Seminary, and the author of several books. This article is adapted from Christianity Today magazine; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.

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