How does culture affect the way we understand Scripture?

North American evangelicals read the Bible—and the world—through Western eyes. Indeed, all human beings come to the Bible with cultural habits, deeply ingrained patterns of interpreting the world that inevitably shape—and sometimes warp—our interpretation and understanding of Scripture. This insight is now commonplace in discussions about biblical interpretation in popular and academic circles.

To read Scripture well, we must read ourselves and our culture well. Picture an iceberg looming in the distance as a metaphor for our worldview. How much of an iceberg do we actually see? Well, as the captain of the Titanic sadly experienced, very little. The tip pokes up through the water, announcing its presence to all with eyes to see, but the iceberg's immensity lurks undetected in the depths. Similarly, our perceptions of our own culture's patterns and pressures is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of our cultural patterns lurk below the surface, outside our realm of awareness.

Me-Centered Approach

Clearly, our experiences shape our reading of the Bible. We are all wearing tinted glasses, lenses that help us to see some things very clearly but distort our vision elsewhere. Think, for instance, of the parable of the Prodigal Son. When 100 North American students were asked to read the parable and retell it, only six mentioned the famine the prodigal experiences away from home. In a word, American readers tend to be "famine-forgetters," perhaps because most Americans simply have not experienced terrible famine. Compare the response of 50 Russian readers to the very same parable: 42 out of 50 mentioned the famine. Why? The cultural history of famine in World War II has deeply embedded itself in the Russian consciousness, and this cultural lens influences what Russian Christians see in a biblical text.

Or consider an additional example: How often have you sat in a Bible study, looked at a passage with other group members, and then had the leader of the group ask, "What does the passage mean to you?" A minute or two passes in silence; slowly individuals begin to respond: "To me this passage is saying" this, or "to me this passage means" that.

Of course, to ask what a passage means is praiseworthy. But to make the individual Christian the starting point for interpretation and the center of a text's meaning—the Western pattern—is problematic. Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes point to at least two immediate dangers.

First, if I make myself the center in my search for meaning in the Bible, I will naturally mine the Scripture for passages that I sense are immediately relevant to my life, and ignore swaths of texts where I don't discern immediate applicability. "This," the authors say, "leaves us basing our Christian life on less than the full counsel of God."

Second, and perhaps more seriously, a me-centered approach to the Bible confuses application with meaning. Simply put, I am not the focus of the Bible's meaning; Christ is. Yes, as God's image-bearers, we play an important role in the Bible's story. Christ has come to save us, and much of the Bible's story explains the wonder of how he has done just that. But if the first question I ask of a biblical text is how I can apply that text to my life, I leapfrog over meaning to applicability. I place myself at the center of the universe, a tendency especially prevalent among American Christians.

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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