Broom's Bible Corner

The Lens of Culture

March 14, 2021

Part of the difficulty in understanding and interpreting Bible passages is that it's difficult to see these passages in their original cultural context. We're so far removed by time, geography, language, and culture that we can miss how they would have understood what was written. It's as if there were a lens between us and them, that blurs the message as we look backward from today.

We can learn more about the culture of their time. Commentaries, dictionaries, and other resources can help us understand how what Jesus and the first century Church taught would be understood by people then.

One thing we often forget is that culture changes and develops over time. Things that were common or expected then may not even be practiced today. For example, Genesis tells the story of the fathers of the nation of Israel - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some of them had multiple wives. We understand that this was acceptable at the time, but was not the intention of Gen 1-2, and isn't how we should live based on New Testament teaching. The practice isn't condemned in the Old Testament, but we shouldn't take its inclusion as an endorsement either.

It's as if there is not just one lens, but two. The underlying message first goes through the lens of the culture of the time, but then also goes through the lens of the culture of the reader today. Many New Testament passages, for example, were written to move believers from the expectations of their day to something different. If these passages were intended to move their culture into something more Christ-like, we have to ask how we should see that adjustment in relation to our culture.

Is modern culture Christ-like? I think the answer for every age is generally no. The specifics will change, but people will not naturally behave like Jesus - the way is still narrow, and only a few will find it (Mat 7:13-14). The challenge for every generation is to try and understand how they need to change to be more like God.

To give an example, much of the New Testament was written to deal with the problem of Jews and Gentiles worshiping God together. You could read these passages and say, "This doesn't seem to be an issue today." There are clearly groups of people, however, that face discrimination - people of color in the US, immigrants in many countries, refugees from war, and many other examples. We should continue to look for people who are being excluded, and those whose voice is not being heard. Who is being excluded? How do we include them? Who is not being heard? How do we give them a voice? These are difficult questions, but it's important to see that there is work that needs to be done.

I'm not suggesting we change the directives of the Bible, but we have to see those directives relative to the culture of the time, while also applying that message to our culture. We teach that the Bible is "living and active" (Heb 4:12) - let it be so.

Written by Brian Broom who is learning how to study the Bible more effectively by understanding the culture and setting of its writing.