We spend our lives trying to know truth.
"Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true." (Emerson)
We're usually far, far off base. The sum of what know is dwarfed by what we don't know, as our bodies would be dwarfed by the sun. Our knowledge is so limited that it seems laughable to even increase it. Is a person with a penny richer if he doubles it to two?
Yet, a good life must embrace and accept all this unknowing while at the same time striving to know more. We must be at peace with our incomplete, incorrect knowledge while not being satisfied.
This is the space that E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien press into with Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. The topic is obviously scripture and the incorrect knowledge is our cultural filter. The authors are attempting to open our eyes, not by supplying the correct interpretation of the Bible, but by showing realistic alternative interpretations coupled with the blinding nature of our own culture. It is a (small) "red pill" moment.
The book delves into a myriad of topics: race and ethnicity, cultural mores, money, sex, food, time, language, guilt, and individualism. I'm going to touch upon a couple that were of interest to me.
Vice & Virtue
We often struggle to separate our cultural mores from morality. In fact, we love to derive our morality from the Bible - when there's no such connection.
We cherry pick verses and conflate meaning, such as on swearing "But above all, my brothers, do not swear…" (James 5:12) or even more egregiously we'll say "God helps those who help themselves" which is most certainly not in the Bible - God helps those who rely on him.
Bans on dancing, drinking, swearing, smoking, and theatre are all recent examples of cultural mores being masqueraded as Biblical morality. And certainly, there can be very good reasons to be careful (or avoid!) all these things. Cultural mores are not bad, but neither are they inherently Biblical.
Yet when we look only to the Bible for our "morality" we become blind to our own cultural mores. We become disingenuous in finding verses that fit our worldview. Hence smoking is a sin because our body is a temple - you'd also better never drink a soda! And get enough sleep, not getting enough sleep can be worse on our health than smoking!
A perfect example Richards & O'Brien bring up is saving. A good, middle-class virtue.
Except the Bible seems to be very critical of saving. Let's look at the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-34).
We often understand the sin of the rich man who tore down his barns to be wastefulness. Did he really need new barns?
Except that's not the issue. He saved too much. "He stored up and hoarded possessions for himself."
The quick rejoinder is that we need to be good stewards. Proverbs talks about the wisdom of saving, right? Yet, we miss the abundant criticism of money and the rich in the Bible. Us: "It's just our attitude towards money that matters." And we ignore Jesus' call to sacrificial giving - content to give 10% and still buy that shiny, new TV. We are straining at gnats and happily swallowing camels.
We justify saving as a virtue because it's a necessary skill to surviving in the West. When you need nice clothes, two cars, a multimedia centre, your own house - you have to save! And save a lot.
Jesus was very critical of the rich, noting how their possessions were a brick wall between them and right relation with God. We're quick to condemn sexual immorality yet perhaps we should be just as quick to condemn financial immorality - after all, Jesus talked more about it than anything but the kingdom of God!
The Cult of Me
The authors point out a gross flaw in how we read the Bible: we read ourselves into every story.
That's why we so often quote Jeremiah 29:11. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Isn't that encouraging?
Not really. Or, not as we understand it. This is why we need to pay attention to context.
Jeremiah is writing to the Israelites as they head into captivity in Babylon. Where they will spend 70 years as slaves before being allowed to return. There are two generations between Jeremiah's statement and its fulfillment.
Jeremiah is reminding the Israelites to have hope amongst their extreme suffering. He is reminding them that while life seems blackest - the Israelites would have experienced rape, murder, and general brutality from the Babylonians - God has not forsaken them.
This is absolutely not a verse to send our kids off to college with or to re-assure ourselves in deciding whether to get a new job. It is a verse for when we are in the deepest, darkest pits of despair and depression!
And when we read ourselves into the story, when we make it about us, we completely miss that. Does the Bible have great truths to say to us? Yes!
But the Bible isn't written directly to us. It's written to specific groups of people in specific time periods. When we ignore these contexts and purposes, we frequently distort the Bible to fit our (Western) worldview. We make it about us when it's about God's people - of which we are a part.
This also helps to explain the never-ending, popular apocalyptic movement (as evidenced by the Left Behind series). We want to believe that our time is special, that we are special. That God was just waiting for us before bringing the curtain down.
The most important part:
What do we do with this?
The authors have several suggestions that are edifying:
- Read passages in the context of who is being written to and what it means to them. Only then work at what the scripture means to you/us.
- Embrace complexity, allow paradox. We worship an infinite God with finite minds. The world, and the Bible, is incredibly complex and doesn't fit into nice black and white boxes.
- Remember that the Bible is written almost entirely to groups of people. Most of the "you"s are plural - understand them that way.
- Do not overcorrect. Just because the Bible is complex does not mean we can't know anything. Do not be all or nothing.
- Be teachable and humble. Do not fear being wrong - because you are (and I am).
- Strive to read the Bible communally, across as diverse a group as possible. 4 white, Western males is not diverse.
So, press on and out.