3 Ways Culture Distorts Our Reading of Scripture
(Originally sent out as an article under Eagles' Simply Proclaim)
As preachers and teachers of Scripture, it is a core description of the job to exegete and to interpret the Word of God as accurately as possible. This is the most exciting part of the preaching and teaching process. Why so? This is because it is in the interpretation that I learn new insights about God. It’s from these new insights that I ponder and meditate on their implications and applications to my present context.
However, as we all know, the task is not an easy one. Very often, our task of figuring out the original intention and message of the biblical writers goes too far—we overdo it and instead of reading from Scripture, we read too much into it. This means we read new meanings into Scripture that its writers never intended, because we fail to notice the cultural lenses we are using. We assume that the Bible values the same things we value, and condemns the same things we condemn.
The result? We teach our own culture, not Scripture’s witness. We needlessly confuse, offend or turn off our hearers. At best, they pick up bad theology that needs to be corrected later; at worst, they get a false impression of the God who loves them and leave the church entirely.
Here’s how that can happen.
In Singapore, we find ourselves in a context where we are sandwiched between our Asian heritage and Western influence. One of the influences we get from our exposure to the west is individualism. This means that the individual person needs to distinguish himself from the people around him, so that his own unique identity can be established.
Taken too far, individualism says, “I’ll find a way or make one; I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” It finds us making decisions regardless of the counsel of others, and underscores a belief that we are sovereign over ourselves.
Sometimes, this undergirds the way we read our Bibles. How so?
We’ve come to think the Bible speaks only to individuals. Make no mistake about it, our God is a personal God and each of us is responsible for our relationship with Him. However, when we read too much individualism into the Scripture, we miss out on what the Scripture really says. That’s why we tend to ask of passages: “How does this apply to me?” not: “How can we as a church obey this teaching?” We think of ourselves as the center of God’s Word.
Take Ephesians 6:10-12 as an example. A simple reading of our English translation will sometimes cause us to read our own selves into the text, thinking that we, as individuals, are to take up the responsibility of spiritual warfare; and that we, as individuals, are to put on the armor of God.
This is not entirely our fault—the English language doesn’t have a plural form of the second-person pronoun, and the closest we get to this is “you all.” But in the Greek of Ephesians 6:10-12, we see Paul using the plural second-person pronoun.
That means it wasn’t just individual believers who needed to put on God’s armor and engage in spiritual warfare, but the entire Ephesian church as a whole, given that the “you” in the original Greek text is plural. This means that spiritual warfare is the collective responsibility of the entire church. There’s no warrant for individual Christians to play Rambo!
My point is that once we see past our individualism, we realize that some of these passages which seem to speak to us as individuals really speak to us as a collective body of Christ. We may also begin to realize that God never intends for our faith to be lived out alone, but within the context of a faith community, and manifested in the form of a local church.
2. Reading Our Own Virtues into Scripture
We may also begin thinking that Scripture praises what our cultural norms praise, and condemns what they condemn. If we’re not careful, we may teach that Scripture says something it doesn’t.
Consider something as ‘given’ as the virtue of leadership. When the title of leader is used on a person, it implies that a person is efficient, creative, productive and charismatic enough to encourage others to be the same. In Singapore, it is easy to see why leaders are important. After all, the nation is successful due to good leadership, and a church can rise or fall as a result of its leadership.
But when we focus on learning and preaching about leadership, do we find ourselves missing out on the clearer biblical teaching on followership and submission? Or do we even realize that when Scripture exalts characters who acted in leadership roles, such as Moses or Nehemiah, it is not to provide us with specific role models for leadership?
Even Hebrews 11, which offers them as models of faith, does not take them as models of leadership. This should inform us that the Bible is about God, not ourselves. It is about what God has done, more than about what human beings have done, or are capable of doing.
My point is not that leadership is a bad thing in our context—and it is definitely not anti-biblical. However, we tend to accord it an importance that Scripture does not, and emphasize it above the critical aspect of being a good follower and submitter to God and other people. This results in us preaching our own virtues, not those of the text.
3. Reading New Vices into Scripture
The flip side of reading virtues into Scripture is reading vices into it—that is, thinking the Bible condemns something that it doesn’t even talk about. This is not surprising, since we are products of the culture and context that we grow up under. This means that we grow up holding certain values as paramount over others, and avoiding those things we find distasteful.
Take tattooing and body art as an example. We often prohibit tattoos based on Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD” (NIV).
I personally know people who believe (based on this passage) that tattooing ourselves is a vice that Christians should shun. But is this really the case?
According to cultural studies of societies in the time of Moses, the act God was condemning was copying pagan mourning practices in ancestral worship—implied in the phrase “for the dead.” In other words, tattooing oneself was an act of false worship—a practice the Israelites were to avoid. Does this condition still apply to us today?
I’m not saying that tattooing is or isn’t permissible. The question now becomes: Can our attitude towards tattooing indeed be biblically substantiated? And are there other (better) reasons why we want to discourage tattooing in the church, other than just quoting a Scripture verse which does not even address the problem?
There are many other examples of this. I’m sure that more senior believers among us will remember the days when they were prohibited from listening to rock music and going to the movies for various “biblical” reasons. As we grow and mature along the way, we sometimes find it more difficult to sustain our objections—precisely because they aren’t really prohibited in Scripture!
As we learn where we have simply read our own objections into the text, this can affect how we teach and preach to our congregations.
There are of course more ways that we tend to read too much into Scripture. I don’t claim to have covered all of them, but I hope I’ve shed some light on how our contexts influence us in our reading of Scripture—and that directly influences how we preach and teach it.
So what are other ways that we read too much into the Scriptures? Share them with me; I read all your comments, and will respond to those I can.
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 185–186.
John Goldingay, “Is Leadership Biblical?” accessed April 20, 2017, http://johnandkathleenshow.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/119_Is_Leadership_Biblical.doc.