What is cultural?

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how my cultural glasses affect my reading of the Bible. I’ve only just now started wondering how Paul’s cultural glasses affected his writing of it.

Folks (like McLaren) insist that it is impossible to view the Bible apart from one’s culture. It’s not that I can’t see the forest for the trees, it’s that the trees are a very part of me. Ok, so did Paul have the same problem? Was he unduly influenced by his culture, or did he somehow manage to free himself from that which traps the rest of us?

If I say Paul was influenced by his culture, then that opens the Bible up to dramatic new interpretations. If I say he wasn’t influenced by culture, then I’m saying it is perhaps possible for ME not to be influenced either.

Or do we say that Paul was an exceptional case, that he was divinely inspired and thus able to see the kingdom of God without distortion — but we are unable to do so? I must say, this is not a conclusion I like. I would much rather have something to aim for, than settle for culture-colored glasses.

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8 thoughts on “What is cultural?”

  1. Don’t we have to assume that Paul, and all Biblical authors for that matter, were uniquely inspired and while they must have had some cultural influence (not fit to lace sandals, etc.) they also were working on a document that went above and beyond.

    I don’t think we are unable to view the Bible in a culture-free way, I think we are unlikely to do so. A quick example would be the talk about slavery and how it fits into the context of the Bible. We have to try to not view our own, more recent, experience with slavery as a standard. Slaves in Bible times were not from Africa any more (and probably less) than they were from anywhere else. We have a hard time taking slavery out of the context of Harriet Tubman and Robert E. Lee.

  2. “If I say Paul was influenced by his culture, then that opens the Bible up to dramatic new interpretations. If I say he wasn’t influenced by culture, then I’m saying it is perhaps possible for ME not to be influenced either.”
    Why the either – or – fallacy? If you say Paul, as well as his writings, were influenced by his culture how does that open the bible to dramatic new interp’s? Doesnt it open it up to interp’s that take account of cultures influence
    on Paul? What new interp’s might those be? Arent we taught that scriptures are not for personal interpretation, but were for reproof instructions etc.. ie they are intentional? While there may be questions regarding different interp’s, ultimately the proper interp’s must take into acct the intent of the writer, and the writer is writing within a context of a cultural understanding.”it is perhaps possible for ME not to be influenced either.” I think not. You are influenced The challenge is not to be uninfluenced but to recognize that you are.
    Why consider Pauls culture as an influence of distortion? Or as “Unduly influenced”? What constitutes Unduly?
    ” It’s not that I can’t see the forest for the trees, it’s that the trees are a very part of me. Ok, so did Paul have the same problem? (The bible does talk about seeing men as trees walking!) If the forest are the combined writings of Paul, and the trees the individual constituents and ideas of his writings, in what way does McClaren claim the trees are part of me? Just where is he standing to make this observation? Okay, I get his point of cultural influence, but he tries to prove too much.

    “Ok, so did Paul have the same problem? ( this is a “do you still beat your wife” question)
    The answer is yes! How can it be otherwise! But is it a problem? Or a wonderful solution? If Paul saw the world through the lense of his culture, and God used Paul to pen the majority of NT scriptures then God chose to use that lens. And, if we can identify key concepts within that same culture and place those lens on our eyes then we can understand what it is that Paul, and by extension of logic, God intended.

    “Folks (like McLaren) insist that it is impossible to view the Bible apart from one’s culture.” Is this the cop out of the undisciplined? I guess if you are the C.O.U. you could certainly view it that way. If he means that we will always be tainted in our understanding regardless of our discipline by current cultural influences, I agree. But if he is saying therefore that we can never discern the original meaning of scripture and the main and plain true truths, then why should I listen to his argument and logic? It is self refuting. I could never understand or apprehend anything or concepts that are not occuring now and to me. Upon what epistomolic construct does he stand to arrive at this conclusion? Okay he was asking a question not making a conclusion.
    ” Slaves in Bible times were not from Africa any more (and probably less) than they were from anywhere else. We have a hard time taking slavery out of the context of Harriet Tubman and Robert E. Lee.” You dont. But you had to think, and understand that the perspective that counts is the one of the author and his culture, not yours.
    ” Don’t we have to assume that Paul, and all Biblical authors for that matter, were uniquely inspired and while they must have had some cultural influence (not fit to lace sandals, etc.) they also were working on a document that went above and beyond.” The very fact that we can understand “(not fit to lace sandals, etc.) ” as something beyond the idea of tying ones shoes, seems to prove the point.

  3. There are two thoughts here:

    1. Paul & Co. are uniquely inspired, and therefore the were not negatively affected by their culture.

    2. Paul & Co. were affected by their culture, but in just the way God intended.

    With either solution, the question remains: is either one valid for me? Can I experience (at least) one of these?

  4. Just some ramblings and opinions from a guy who is culturally-influenced and sees “things imperfectly as in a poor mirror” (1 Cor 13:12)…

    Are we culturally influenced in how we read the Bible? Yes.

    Can we completely overcome that? No, but through awareness and diligent scholarship we can at least partially overcome it.

    Was Paul and Co. influenced by their culture? Yes.

    Was this influence always totally positive? Maybe this depends on the time and place we read from. I think this question gets at another bigger question…

    Does Paul and Co. being uniquely inspired by God in their writing of Scripture have to mean that their writings are timeless and “perfect” (i.e., error-free and binding for all time)? Maybe not. For example, there’s evidence that the New Testament writings on the role and rights of women were quite generous and liberating in the 1st century Jewish culture. But some of them are sure hard to take and defend in 21st century Western society — and almost no 21st century Western Christian would take them literally and claim all of them as binding today. So, either we’re wrong or Paul was wrong — or, maybe there’s another option. Again, taking the women’s roles example, maybe Paul was right at the time — “right” meaning it was what God intended that culture to hear at that time — but maybe it’s not so right for us now. So, then, maybe Paul’s “inspiration” was by necessity bound within the context of the culture at that time. In other words, maybe inspiration — and thus the Bible — is “timely” more than it’s “timeless”.

    Of course, the big bugaboo for those of us far removed from 1st century Jewish culture has always been and will always be what parts of the Bible are culturally influenced and what are not. As mutant says, diligent scholarship is required to better understand the culture, the writer’s intent, and the situation/occasion of the writing, and this can make some things clearer (although, again, there will never be total agreement on these things among genuine God-loving Christians). And, of course, understanding all of this is complicated by our own cultural lens. But the good news is, at least in my opinion, is that there’s a whole lot of at least the New Testament that readily breaks through its cultural context — and ours — to inspire and direct us in living in the way of Jesus. And, even more so the more we become aware of our own cultural bias and seek better textual understanding via diligent scholarship.

    So, while cultural influence — both of the biblical writers and us the readers — will never be completely overcome, God has given us enough clarity (and ways to achieve increasingly better clarity) to generally fulfill what the Bible says about itself in 2 Tim 3:15-17: “…how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

  5. Skipper asks: ” With either solution, the question remains: is either one valid for me? Can I experience (at least) one of these?” I would think we all have a better shot at a #2.
    But Im not sure I agree with the premise of number 1. The idea that being affected by culture is all negative. Of course the other challenging thing is to picture Paul as a cause of a culture and not only an effect. Boy that will stretch our idea of the Christian life!

    Bwhite says: ” Does Paul and Co. being uniquely inspired by God in their writing of Scripture have to mean that their writings are timeless and “perfect” (i.e., error-free and binding for all time)?”
    First knee jerk reaction to this…well never mind. I try not to resort to old habit and thinking knee jerking.
    We have a bad habit of making a passage prove or teach more than it was intended. Doing so we often find ourselves backed into an untenable corner with little defense but rants and handwaving. I dont think our lack of prudence in our claims about a passage take away from its timelessness or its timeliness. Faced with scritptural teaching about cultural issues in the 1st century or in the 10th bc we often respond with a blank stare, we cant relate. But we can discover principles of conduct, and glimpses of Gods nature and character we are to reflect.

    bwhite writes: ” timeless and “perfect” (i.e., error-free and binding for all time)? Maybe not.”
    Tough one because I dont think your i.e necessarily follows. They can be perfect w/o being binding for all time. I dont think they can be binding for all time w/o being also perfect. So binding is a subset of error free or perfect. A lso they can be timeless w/o being binding. Something that is absolutely true truth is so even if the circumstance ceases in which it is true.
    ie I am wearing jeans now. That will be true even after it ceases to be now.
    bwhite ” Again, taking the women’s roles example, maybe Paul was right at the time — “right” meaning it was what God intended that culture to hear at that time — but maybe it’s not so right for us now. So, then, maybe Paul’s “inspiration” was by necessity bound within the context of the culture at that time.”
    But arent the principles still valid and timeless? The only thing that has changed are the circumstances. If the principles involved are honor, respect, family, knowledge then Pauls teaching is very valid today. It just has different skin on it.

  6. Mutant: good points. “Perfect” was probably an imprecise word to use, because I think I would generally agree that assuming inspiration means assuming perfection in that given situation. I can take it in faith that Paul’s words about women being silent in the church was perfect (and thus inspired/God-breathed) for the situation he was addressing in his writing — what it means in the here and now is the question.

    Which brings me to your point about valid timeless general principles from a passage, and I agree as far as it goes with the principles that you mention (honor, respect, etc.). However, many have historically read general principles of subservience and control into these passages — principles that I don’t think we can make a case for carrying forward.

    Regarding your example of the “truth” that you are wearing jeans right now and that that will be true even when you cease wearing jeans: I’d put this into the same category as the biblical truth/fact that Jesus got in a boat and taught the crowds — the fact that it happened then makes it true, even though Jesus has ceased to be in the boat now. To morph your example into something more apples-to-apples to some of the more possibly culturally-driven biblical commands (like role of women), it would have to be more like “you should not wear jeans when you go to church”. Rarely would you hear someone say that now, but you absolutely would have heard it 30 years ago — probably even 15 years. That would be a culturally influenced dictate, one that we would not carry forward as valid today. You could always say that the general principles of choosing the proper attire for a given environment that will not distract or offend someone carry on timelessly, but the real specifics of the command are culturally driven and would be best described as timely, not timeless, in my opinion.

  7. Bwhite ” However, many have historically read general principles of subservience and control into these passages — principles that I don’t think we can make a case for carrying forward.” I agree that we cannot make that case. I think we both realize that Paul was not making that case, but as you point -many have historically- this is where Pauls exhortation to study in order to rightly divide the Word- comes in.
    ” To morph your example into something more apples-to-apples…..” I think we find common ground here. My point and I think yours also (?) is that the principles are indeed timeless (perfect) but the real life application of those principles take different form in different cultures.( possibly the idea of new wineskins Even if this is our given, if say the ultimate form of honoring your father in a culture is to kill him at age 50, the higher order principle of thou shalt not kill would apply, and our argument above is nullified.

    Have we a new subject? The hierarchy of Gods commands and edicts in practical life. Was it okay for the Harlot to lie about the spies…..maybe some other time.

  8. Was it ok to be a harlot? Much less a lying harlot?

    It’s a classic Bible college dorm room question: It’s 1943 and you’re a German Christian hiding Jews in your attic. The Nazis pound on the door and demand to know if you have Jews in the attic- what do you, as a Christian, you know lying is wrong. So…?

    I think it’s a shaky premise in the first place. No one said lying is ok under certain circumstances, but no one said Nazis are a good idea either. Lying can be wrong but also be the only option you can think of, so, maybe you gotta lie. Doesn’t make it unforgivable. If you’ve got Jews in the attic, you’re already living a life of sacrifice and you are familiar with grace. Which is good, because it’s grace that will be covering that lie.

    Not sure this translates to God’s commands and how the principles mesh with the cultural considerations.

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