The Cultural Lens of Scripture

June 15, 2021
An open bible

The theme of this issue of Gathering is biblical translation. To that end, I’ve been thinking about culture and the Bible. How much, I wondered, do we miss in the teachings of scripture because we read them through a Western lens?

We know Jesus was born, raised, and died Jewish, but just what does that mean? The Judaism of first-century Palestine was quite different from the Judaism of today. Linguists have long pondered if our world view shapes our language or the other way around. I suspect they have a reciprocal relationship wherein our culture, via our language, shapes our world view, which filters what we notice and how we interpret reality. For example, think about snow, which is abundant in the North, compared to southern regions. Northern-dwelling people would need a rich way to describe their physical environment, and it turns out that Inuit languages are better at capturing the nuances of snow than some other languages. To open the Bible is to step into a cross-cultural experience of a world very unlike our own. Most of us do not speak the language and are unaware of local customs or geography.

Culture has been described as an iceberg. What is easily identified as cultural is above the surface: dance, rituals, dress, language, and food, for example. The further we move down into its mass, the more difficult it becomes to identify our cultural practices and presuppositions. If a world view is an iceberg, then we are deep under water when reading the Bible.

Based on the work of E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, I suggest the following five guidelines for reading scripture.

  1. Embrace complexity. We can import several presuppositions into any given text. Read commentaries for cultural information. Research, research, research!
  2. Beware of overcorrection. When we identify something as cultural, it is tempting to set it aside, but don’t. Explore and be sensitive to the nuance; your sermon may depend on it.
  3. Be teachable. We often assume a position on an issue based on our own world view…and then defend it vigorously. Be prepared to be surprised by the text and willing to set aside your own assumptions.
  4. Embrace error. Give yourself permission to get it wrong and learn from it. Look for what goes without saying for you. For example, we tend to think of angels as heavenly beings, yet scripture also speaks of cherubs and seraphs. What are we missing in assuming these beings are all types of angels?
  5. Read together. There is danger in allowing a homogeneous group to decide what scripture means. Read commentaries from authors from different cultures. We are less likely to get it wrong if the writers we consult are as diverse as the cultures in scripture.

There are many books on this topic. Two that I’ve found helpful in widening my perspective on culture in the scriptures are:

  • E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 2012).
  • Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 2008).