An astute reader recently pointed out to me that I had asked the wrong question: “Which books do you think that every Christian should read to get a better understanding of the Bible in terms of what it meant back then and what it means right now?”
Now that I’ve finished reading Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, I realized how wrong of a question it was. As a westerner, I’ve been culturally predisposed to view the Bible as prescriptive and applicable to me. Whenever I open a carton of eggs, this verse is waiting for me: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) The rest of Psalm 118 is rather irrelevant and absent from the promise at hand: “I should be happy because God made today just for me.” Whenever I channel surf and happen to stop on any of the Christian channels, I might see an old man sitting in a chair reading a passage from scripture as though there were something in it just for me. Even in secular t.v. shows, a character will occasionally refer to the ten commandments or quote some passage of scripture.
Not only that, but I can do something that generations of Christians could not – read the Bible by myself. When the letters were originally presented to the house churches, they were likely read aloud so that anyone who could not read would benefit from it. This also changed how they understood what was said. Their community-focused culture would have caused them to ask themselves: “How does this message apply to us?”
I’m culturally predisposed to asking the wrong questions and interpreting the Bible in a wrong way because of the cultural blinders that exist in our Christian America. The tricky part thing is to figure out what are the right questions to ask?
“What did this passage mean to original hearers two thousand years ago as a community of believers in ancient Israel / Greek / Italy / Turkey?”
That establishes that:
1. Time has passed, not just a little bit; but a lot. Whole empires have risen and collapsed. Philosophy and morality has changed. Institutions that were expected to endure for all time are long forgotten.
2. The ancient world was community-centric whereas American Individualism is all many of us have ever known. We just do things differently and we have different beliefs about right and wrong.
3. The ancient world was structured differently in more ways than just one. For them, honor and shame were vital. We don’t see things that way. They weren’t strangers to nuance, but we like binary – one or the other – type thinking.
Perhaps I should ask: “What specific things do I believe about Scripture that might cause me to misunderstand it as I read it?”
We already know that we don’t think like they thought, and we don’t believe what they believed – but we tend to ignore the cultural context in favor of reading whatever we like from Scripture. When Paul wrote about modesty, he told Christians not to wear expensive clothes. When modern pastors read about modesty, they tell women not to wear specific kinds of clothes. This same verse speaks two different messages.
My pastor put it this way – if we believe that the Bible is prescriptive, then we believe that every rule applies to us here and now. If we believe that the Bible is descriptive, then we believe that every rule applied to the people to whom it was spoken and is not necessarily a command that we are to obey. Some might then point out that I’d fall into another error, of declaring the Bible as descriptive of an ancient culture and therefore not applicable today. There goes our ‘one or the other’ thinking again. Why can’t the Bible be prescriptive and descriptive, applicable and inapplicable at the same time? It’s original hearers most likely thought that it was, so why shouldn’t we?