Culture Shapes What We Think is Cultural and Leaves Us All with Blind Spots

Almost everyone today recognizes that at least some texts address local situations. Most Christians, for example, do not set aside money every Sunday to send to the church in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-3). Still fewer have gone to Troas to try to find Paul’s cloak and take it to him (2 Tim 4:13). But texts have cultural and often situational contexts even when the case is not so obvious. When we do not pay attention to biblical texts’ original cultural setting, we intuitively read them in light of our own; we cannot read them without any setting whatsoever filling in the blanks of the text. For many readers today Jesus himself becomes no more than a “Rorschach inkblot,” “standing for and legitimating whatever individuals and groups choose to do ‘in his name.’” Such, for example, was the Aryan Jesus of the Third Reich.

As Christians, we embrace all of Scripture as God’s message, but we also must recognize that it is contextualized within languages and cultures. Indeed, Christians cannot question whether God’s Word could be communicated in concrete contexts that invite our consideration, for we affirm the incarnation. The ultimate contextualization is the Word that became flesh as a first-century Galilean Jewish man, in a particularity that could better identify with us in our particularities than could an impossible generic, cultureless person.

Much of the New Testament simply reinforces the basic message of the apostolic gospel and its ethical implications, contextualizing it for a variety of concrete situations. In so doing, the New Testament writers provide us with models for how to apply their teachings in often quite different concrete situations today, whether in Nigeria, Nepal, Nicaragua, or North America.

We all have cultural blind spots, and too often we are ready to remove the splinter from someone else’s eye before removing the log from our own (Matt 7:3). For example, most North American evangelicals are more inclined to think of syncretism in terms of, say, east Asian ancestor veneration than in terms of worshiping both God and mammon, though Jesus explicitly deemed the latter idolatry (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13). This problem is normally most acute for members of a dominant culture. Members of minority cultures have to learn about a majority culture to survive, but members of a dominant culture can live their entire lives without knowing much about minority cultures. Western Christian critiques of tribalism and ethnic strife in other parts of the world ring hollow to others who observe North American churches’ frequent racial segregation and ideological separation along racial and often cultural lines.

Too often, Christian readings domesticate the Bible in ways acceptable to our own settings, but listening to Christians from different settings helps challenge our hermeneutical blind spots. This is true whether the corrections come from studying the history of interpretation (reception history) or from global voices of living churches today. Because we are the body of Christ, we must allow each member to bring needed gifts and insights.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

To learn more about how to read Scripture in light of cultural context and guided by the Holy Spirit, read Spirit Hermeneutics (2016).

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