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Interpreting the Bible - Cultural Context of Biblical Interpretation

Cultural, Political, Social, Economic Context of Readers & Authors of the Bible


There is extensive interaction between religion and culture: religion influences culture while culture influences religion. Most religious believers acknowledge and emphasize the former, but don't recognize the extent of the latter, assuming that their religion is based on revelations from an unchanging divinity about absolute standards of conduct. This prevents them from seeing how their religion is culturally conditioned and thus how they attribute political or economic opinions to their god.

Believers may assume that the Bible is a common touchstone which never changes no matter what the culture, but this is a false sense of security. Christianity is different from one era to the next, from one culture to the next. Christianity as Americans today practice it is different form the Christianity practiced in colonial America and both are different from the Christianity practiced in present-day South Africa, 19th century Japan, and medieval France.


Inconsistent Originalism

Few Christians understand or even notice the culturally conditioned ways in which they read and interpret their Bibles. As far as most people are concerned, they are simply reading the Bible the way it was meant to be read and are interpreting it in the manner which the original authors intended it to be interpreted. Steven L. McKenzie writes in How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature:

The recognition of the interpreter's situation as a factor in appropriating text is nothing new. Christians of all stripes have long recognized it. That is why the few churches today practice foot washing or exchange the "holy kiss," despite direct commands to do so in the New Testament. Nor is the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols an issue in modem Western churches. These practices are all recognized as cultural, and modern culture has changed. ...

Still, the extent to which the New Testament letters are permeated by the culture that produced them does not always received full consideration by modern interpreters trying to appropriate them. Thus, the text about head covering in I Corinthians 11 has a history of (ab)use and is still used today in some circles to argue for the subordination of women; yet the idea of the female body as an imperfect edition of the male body, upon which the text is based, was a product of an ancient culture and strikes a modern reader as ridiculous.

Paul himself admits in the passage that he is dealing with a “custom,” even though he presses theology into service for the sake of his rhetorical argument. This raises the question as to whether Paul’s discussions of other issues (e.g., marriage, women’s roles, homosexuality) also reflect his rhetoric and the culture surrounding him and may no longer be tenable for the modem understandings of such matters as gender roles, sexual orientation, and the like.

These are examples of how the New Testament texts are not only products of a specific culture which is not ours, but also how the text is interpreted based upon the reader’s culture. This isn’t necessarily a problem; the real problem lies is in how few Christians recognize, understand, and acknowledge that this occurs.

Instead, Christians tend to pretend that their readings of the text stand outside of their culture and that the parts of the text which they emphasize most are also independent of the culture in which they were written. Thus, the pretend to be locking on to eternal truths revealed by God and external to mere cultural habits.

Christians, whether liberal or conservative, progressive or fundamentalist, don’t have consistent, coherent standards for judging certain passages as still applicable to them and others as cultural products which might be interesting for historical reasons, but not binding anymore. All of these categories have shifted over time in every denomination and church. Christians “wing it” and divide up the text according to political and social preconceptions — in other words, they use thinking which is the product of their own culture in order to decide what is “really” a product of another culture and what isn’t.


Authors and Readers

Refusing to acknowledge the cultural influences operating both on reader and author impoverishes any reading created. Cultural influences — the political, historical, social, and economic context — do not invalidate an interpretation because they are part of what makes one’s interpretation their own. The ways people read the Bible in 5th century Rome, 10th century France, or 18th century China would not speak to contemporary Americans as well as modern American interpretations. And that's fine.

What is invalidated are attempts to impose those interpretations on others and use those interpretations to impose their own cultural views on others via the political process. This makes the Bible a political and cultural weapon. Insisting that one culturally influenced interpretation be adopted by everyone as the only valid one, thus determining others' behavior, outlook, and beliefs, is an attempt to end political debate about how people should behave. It's no coincidence that passages which demand the subordination of certain segments of the population have been read by those who aren’t subordinated as being “eternal truths” rather than cultural products.

This is how America’s Christian Right fights its culture war in America: demanding that others accept their views — especially views on who should and should not have power, who should and should not dominate — because it’s what the Bible requires. For example, instead of serious debates about whether abortion or capital punishment are appropriate, people trot out the Bible, declare their interpretation as the only valid one, and then insist that all society adhere to what they have proclaimed God’s Will to be.

There is no debating God’s Will, we can only follow it. Thus there is no substantive political debate, just attempts to cow others into a particular course of action.

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