I teach Bible studies. That’s not a big surprise considering I am a pastor. Each study I hold gives time to how to interpret the text and how we may apply it. When beginning a new series of studies I caution the class about one important aspect that is easily forgotten. “Respect the fact that Holy Scripture is alien to us.”
This Is News?
I get funny looks when I say that. The Bible is very alien to us in the modern church. It is from a very different culture. It is a culture that no longer exists, at least in the form the people living in it would recognize.
Modern Western Christians rightly believe that the Bible is an important factor in how our culture has been shaped. Western culture would look very different had it not been for the influence of Christianity and the Protestant understanding of the primacy of the Bible. We should keep in mind though that the Bible is not a product of western culture.
What Do I Mean?
When we mistake the Bible as a product of our culture we make errors in interpretation and application. The prosperity gospel is a prime example of modern values shaping how the Bible is misused. The fundamentalist movement that began at the turn of the 20th century valued verifiable evidence as the basis of establishing the authority of Scripture. If the reader wants to know what is wrong with “proving the Bible” this point is made. Nothing is wrong with proving the Bible. Nothing is correct about it either. Assuming the Bible must be proven in order to be taken seriously, gives authority to methods of proof rather than that of Scripture.
The idea of scientifically proving the claims of the Bible is an attractive attempt to establish biblical authority. Unfortunately, it means that would-be defenders have given in to the authority of the scientific method which is a modern invention. A modern method of reasoning becomes the authority.
How We Interpret The Bible Is How We Interpret Life
I hate it when political progressives use the phrase “denying science” as an argument against their opponents. It reflects a bad understanding of science. The claim exposes how we interpret life. No one claims to live by science. Anyone who would make that claim will provoke me to ask what book is on their nightstand. “Are you reading Newton or Einstein before going to sleep?” I don’t think so.
We may claim any authority guides us when we debate our position. It is not necessarily the case that it defines and informs how we live. An assumption is at work within us when we believe our ways are the best. It is not a bad assumption. But, it does not keep us from being misled.
A Personal Example
A young man approached me one Sunday following church services. “Pastor Don,” he began, “I am writing a speech in school on ‘being yourself.’ I know the Bible says something about that. Can you help me find it?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I suspected that he wanted to find the quote, “To thine own self be true.” The assertion is from Hamlet not the Bible. “The Bible doesn’t actually say anything about ‘being yourself.’ It does say a lot about being who God would want you to be.”
My answer did not give him a good reference to support his project. The Bible says a lot about personal responsibilities. It does not reflect modern individualistic values.
A Scientific Example
“What should a driver who hits a pedestrian do immediately after the accident?” I ask. As Americans we all know we must stop even if we are not responsible. Hit-and-run is frowned upon by the law. It is the way things are done.
“In Papua, New Guinea, you do not do that if you bit a pedestrian. You drive straight to the police station, report what has happened, and ask to be locked up. The people in the area are likely members of the same tribe as the person you hit. They could take revenge right then.”
I then ask someone to read Numbers 35:9-28. It is a long passage detailing the “cities of refuge” where someone could avoid a family “avenger of blood” in the case of an accidental death. Modern Americans (indeed no Westerner) would want to live that way because we know that a thorough investigation will exonerate us if we are innocent. At least we hope so.
Jared Diamond describes the tribal compensation practice that avoids revenge killing in his book The World Until Yesterday. He argues the traditional restoration of good relations took less time than the court proceedings inherited from Dutch colonial law. Maybe our ways are not always the best?
A Familiar Alien
The Bible is alien to us if we never read it. When we do read it we become discouraged because we have a difficult time relating to it. The struggle is worth it. When we approach the Bible with respect for when it was written as well as the veneration it has received over the centuries, we develop an understanding of Biblical authority that is traditional and amazingly fresh because it is outside our everyday experience.
The Bible is alien. It is then surprisingly informative to our situation. The Bible calls our assumptions into question. And it becomes refreshingly visionary.