Culture and the Bible

Today I take up Cindy’s* first question:

1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)

Despite  starting out with the question of fallibility, the word “culture” occurs in one form or another five separate times in this question. It appears to equate cultural influence with fallibility. And although I’m willing to take on the issue of fallibility, it seems to me the greater concern is something like this: “How does culture interact with inspiration?”

My short answer is, “Culture is what makes it relevant.”  “Culture” has gotten a bad reputation in some circles lately, because it has been used to justify certain practices  by some Christians that other Christians find unsettling. I believe that’s largely because “my” culture is largely invisible to “me.” When it comes to culture, we’re all like the college freshman who discovered he’d been speaking prose his whole life. “My culture” is just what I happen to do. “Your” culture is weird.

When we talk of cultural influences in the Bible, we tend to think of the same types of things Cindy mentioned, practices or attitudes which are foreign to us. But the Bible is saturated with various cultures, and in some ways saturates our own, so that we don’t notice them.

Let’s take one of the most prominent examples. “The Lamb of God.” Wonder how many think of that as a culturally conditioned reference? But of course, the Israelites to whom the sacrificial system was given were herdsmen.The principal of the school where I attended first grade pointed this out to me.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he had been a missionary to the people we used to call “Eskimos” in far north Alaska. They had no radio or TV in those days. A generation before the Alaska pipeline, there were no highways to most of their settlements. The only way in or out was by plane. These people had never seen a lamb. There were no sheep where they lived. So how could missionaries explain the concept of the Lamb of God?

The closest they could come was a baby seal. That communicated the innocence and helplessness of the sacrifice.

Now, you and I might have a lot of objections. For one thing, seals aren’t even clean! But that wasn’t the point.

The Bible is permeated with cultural references and influences we simply do not see. “Though our sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Obvious? How about in Tahiti? or Ghana? “I am the vine, you are the branches?” A lot more obvious in wine country than the corn belt.

So that’s the first point I think we need to realize when we talk about cultural influences in the Bible. They are present because God wanted to meet people where the are, to communicate His message in ways that could be understood by the receiving audience. When our culture is closer to the original audience, the meaning is more obvious. When our culture differs widely from the original audience, the meaning may be entirely obscured. So to really understand the Bible message, we need to get as close to understanding the culture to which the message was originally given as possible.  There’s a lot more to this topic, but I think I’ll stop here for today.

It’s better to take these things one bite at a time, at least it is for me.. And, to Cindy and all others with the question, I hope that’s really responsive to your concerns. Let me know.


Culture and the Bible — 2 Comments

  1. yes, i think the question of culture is a big one. are you saying that god was teaching broad principals to a specific time and place, and that we take the braod principles and try to apply them to our here and now? if that is the case, then our view of the bible would have to change. in a good way, think. this is good stuff! i hadn’t thought of it quite in this way before. looking forward to the next installment.

    • I think that’s a fair summary, Cindy. It seems to me God wants to impart eternal truths, truths that are not bound by time, place, or circumstances. But to be useful, they have to be applied to particular sets of circumstances. Don’t just tell me God is love, however beautiful that may be. Tell me how to love my naughty child, my annoying elderly parent, my obnoxious neighbor. Is it loving to give alcohol to an alcoholic?

      Sometimes being loving does not mean being nice. So the particular application in one set of circumstances may appear contradictory to the application of the same principle in different circumstances.

      Hope that makes sense.

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