One of my favorite parts from The Brothers Karamazov (so far) is when Father Zosima is talking to the peasants who have come from far and wide to seek his counsel and healing. Although I was aware that such practices existed, having read about them in my atheist years, it was a bit jarring to realize that Dostoevsky was describing a particular slice of Christian culture –a part of my religion. I was astonished at how something I thought I knew (or was coming to know) so well could be experienced in such a drastically different way. I had forgotten that my view of the world is shaped (if not distorted) by my modern American Protestant lens.
It is so easy to forget how biased our view may really be. J.I. Packer explains:
“We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world… It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has moulded us.”
It is uncontroversial that our understanding is shaped by our experience. My own experience within the churches of Christ has made me view attending church services three times a week as normal. While I can recite Acts 2:38 by heart just from having heard it in sermons, other people might have Romans 10:9 roll off their tongues. My perception of what it means to be a Christian has been dramatically shaped not only by scriptures, but also by the behavior of those with whom I fellowship. The small culture of which I am a part gives me a strong lens through which I view the question of what it means to be a Christian. One reason for me specifically to be cognizant of this lens is it is too easy for me to become judgmental when someone falls outside of my perception of the norm by only attending services once a week.
My general concern is that we often forget the lenses with which we approach the scriptures. A modern day Christian may view reading the Bible on a regular basis as essential for Christian life. Yet when we look at the early church, not every congregation had a copy of 1 Peter or Hebrews. For the vast history of Christianity, most Christians were illiterate and couldn’t read the Bible at all. Did that make them any less Christian? Of course not.
I fear that the availability of the Bible (would you like it NIV, KJV, ESV, or Message? In dark leather for the “real men” or hot pink for those Christian teenage girls?) and the recognition that it contains timeless truths about God has made us forget all of the ways in which it is inaccessible.
The Bible was written by men almost 2,000 years ago, to specific churches with specific needs. Sometimes it says things which seem almost contradictory. For example, where Ephesians 2:8 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” James 2:24 says “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” The word that the NIV translates as “works” in Ephesians is the same word translated as “what he does” in James. This means that one verse tells us that we are not saved by works, while another says we are justified by what we do. (The difference between being “saved” and “justified” is another important question.) Of course, the consistency becomes obvious when you realize that Ephesians was addressed to a congregation plagued by Judaizers who wanted justification through the works of the law, whereas James is addressed to people who reduce faith to intellectual assent without any practice.
I fear that too many people come to the Bible looking for answers to their questions instead of seeking the way the apostles answered the questions of their time. When we take the Bible out of context, we are going to promote confusion and inaccurate answers. Granted, there are verses that are universally applicable and can be read and understood without doing an in-depth study. Galatians 5:19-21, for example, gives a list of sins that is easily understood. But many verses are not as clear-cut or as obviously applicable today and their use tends to lead toward eisegesis instead of exegesis.
In “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative,” NT Wright explains that:
“The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be… we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not.”
The Bible is not a science textbook; the epistles do not (always) give us a universal law that can be applied and understood in every context. Instead, it is a collection of advice directed at specific people in a specific time. We should not assume that we can understand all of it when we are in a totally different cultural milieu. We ought not pretend that God gave us the Bible to slice and dice into neat little answers to all of our modern questions. Rather, we should ask ourselves, what was Paul trying to convey to the people of his time, and what message should that have for us? Granted, I am not always perfect at this. But in general, I want to strive to take off my glasses of American Protestantism and try to view things through the lens of Paul’s time.