If you did not know, reading Scripture is a difficult endeavor at times.
Since we do not share our language, culture, or literary nuances with the authors of these writings, at times we read aspects of our American culture into the words of Scripture. And many times it’s not always obvious…
This creates a dilemma. In the seminary world it would be called the difference between eisegesis (“placing meaning into”) and exegesis (“bringing meaning out of”) of the text. Basically, when we participate in placing meaning into the text, we block ourselves from the possibility of accurately bringing meaning out of it.
Most of us get so caught up in grabbing a “take-home” idea immediately from a text and moving on that we forget these writings took place in real times, with real people, and in real cultures. An overly simplistic example would be assuming a writer is a racist when reading a text that was written during the time of American slavery because that writer uses the word “coloured” to describe the slaves instead of “African-American” (a term many would use today) – without even realizing that the writer is actually an abolitionist and is just using the lingo of their day.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the top 5 ways Americans read our culture into Scripture:
1. Socio-economic Prosperity.
The Bible talks a lot about blessing. At times it is specifically talking about physical, earthly prosperity. At times it is talking about spiritual, eternal prosperity.
In America, we almost always read the word “blessing” immediately thru the lens of socio-economic prosperity, and only when pushed do we decide that spiritual blessing could be what Scripture is talking about. We clearly believe God desires to bless us with money, material goods, and positions of influence, but are not as quick to embrace the potential that he might desire to bless us with perseverance, contentment, and relationships of transparency – all of which might require us to actually be earthly “poor” while eternally “rich.”
The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are the easiest passages to point to where we see the word blessing and immediately read into it an American version of what that means. It’s actually quite a ridiculous thing for us to do considering that in this same Sermon on the Mount teaching, just a little later in the section, Jesus will speak against treasuring earthly blessing over spiritual blessing (Matthew 6:21)!
What verses have you read recently where you have assumed it meant physical, earthly prosperity? What would it mean to read those verses thru the lens of spiritual, eternal prosperity?
2. Unmitigated Tolerance.
The Scriptures no doubt go out of their way to talk about how we should “love our neighbors as ourselves” and not stand in the seat of judgment toward those who are unlike us.
As Americans, this typically translates into the language of tolerance. Tolerance is a positive thing. Unmitigated tolerance (assuming that there is no standard with which to have expectations of people) is a negative thing. It’s also unrealistic, in that people might say they “do not judge” but they necessarily do – in fact, almost immediately in their “do not judge” stance, they begin judging harshly those who they determine are being judgmental! They also are forgetting that they have standards themselves with which they are measuring other people by, whether they admit it or not – and thus are by nature not tolerant of those who do not meet those standards.
Unmitigated tolerance is not a Biblical principle. Certainly, not acting as if you are The Judge is Biblical because that’s what it means to “judge not” (Matthew 7:1). However, also holding ourselves first, and then others second, to standards God has set forth in Scripture is definitely Biblical as well (1 Corinthians 5:12).
What passages are you reading unmitigated tolerance into? How are you hindering yourself and others from becoming the people God created you to be by hiding God’s standard behind “do not judge” talk?
3. Cheap Grace.
Grace is perhaps the most beautiful theme and reality of God’s plan evident in Scripture. But we can make it much less beautiful by making it cheap…
It is Bonhoeffer who gets credited with the phrase “cheap grace. ” He essentially warns against viewing grace as simply an intellectual reality that God grants to all mankind upon completing a set of specific religious acts regardless of how they actually live their lives. It’s like sinning on Friday, going to confession on Saturday, and then living that same life of sin on Sunday. You treat grace as a status you have achieved and a right you are owed, without actually living a life that is transformed by it. If we do this then we ignore Romans 6 which implores us to not take advantage of the grace we have been given by continuing to be enslaved to the sin we have been freed from! We lose the actual power of God in our lives for salvation (2 Timothy 3:5; Romans 8:1-2) when we live in such a way as to cheapen the grace God has given us.
What Scriptures do we or others quote that sometimes give us the idea that we can live our life however we would like as long as we run back to God asking for forgiveness? How are you essentially demanding grace from God and others while not living up to its call on your life to be transformed into the image of Christ?
4. Salvation via Social Justice.
This is one of the more popular themes of today’s world, and also one of the more misrepresented issues in the Bible. This is certainly one of the main places where most Americans miss what Scripture is saying. We take a passage like Matthew 25 and make it say something it doesn’t. Jesus speaks of caring for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but what does that actually say about my salvation if I do these things? Are issues of social justice related to eternal salvation, or are they the outworking of the salvation that exists in our lives?
Most people miss a huge word in this passage and apply the passage as a general principle that we might earn salvation if we care for the world. Unfortunately, Jesus specifically says these acts were done for “my brothers.” He could have easily used a word like “neighbor” (like he did when he said “love your neighbor as yourself”) but instead, he uses a familial term. What Jesus is likely talking about is how we are supposed to care for our spiritual family as we experience the harshness (and likely persecution) of this world…it’s not that Jesus is anti us caring for the world in these same ways. It’s just that as humans we typically think that by solving the problems of this world we are somehow bringing salvation to the world – when what Jesus clearly wants to get across to his disciples and to us is that no amount of social justice will ever be able to save eternally, only He will! It does not mean we do not avidly fight for social justice issues – we do! However, we do not base the eternal salvation of others on simply caring for their physical and social needs, but in pointing them to find their salvation in their eternal need for a Savior!
What Bible verses have you been taught or have you read that have caused you to think or talk in a way that leads others to believe that winning the social justice war is equivalent to winning the eternal battle for souls? How have you ignored the eternal salvation of people in order to just deal with the temporary issues of our world?
5. Anti-religion Spirituality.
The oddest trend in Scriptural misinterpretation is truly this one. Especially since James speaks directly of a “pure and genuine religion” that we might attain to as Christians (1:27).
Recent anti-religion talk mostly comes out of convenience and the typical anti-establishment mood of our day. It is certainly not Scriptural. Nowhere does Jesus bash religion. He only bashes the vapid religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23). In fact, Jesus goes out of his way to uphold the religious traditions of his day (He attended the required Jewish festivals), reads from the religious writings of his day during a religious service (remember He reads from the prophet Isaiah in the Temple), and even states that his goal is not to abolish the religious rules but to validate them by living them out in their fullness (Matthew 5:17).
If we are honest with ourselves and about our culture, most of this discussion of anti-religion is really about 1 of 2 things: (a) removing the hypocritical structures that people use to put on the appearance of godliness for the purpose of judging others by their own self-righteousness; or (b) it is about our sinful desire to remove from us the accountability structures of God’s Word and God’s People. The dilemma is that we never know if someone is being Christ-like (attacking Pharisaic behavior) or selfish (wanting no accountability) when they attack religion. Religion necessarily comes with expectations. And that is a good thing. But as humans, we can abuse those expectations. And that abuse can be seen thru those who are like Pharisees, and thru those who want no accountability. We must be careful that we do not find ourselves in either category when we read Scripture.
What Bible verses have you used to justify your own Pharisaic behavior or your own desire to not be held accountable? Have you joined the anti-religion spiritual mantra of our day or held to the “pure and genuine religion” the brother of Jesus describes in the first chapter of James?
These are difficult blind spots for us to see as Americans who are so deeply engrained in our culture. That is why the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives is so important. It was not overnight that Peter, or Paul, or Apollos, or any of the New Testament Christians learned to read thru their Spirit-given lenses and not their Jewish or Greco-Roman lenses. It takes time. It takes humility. It takes constant reflection. It takes a community of believers around us helping us interpret Scripture within the body of believers.
I have fallen and continue to fall into these traps at times of reading my culture into Scripture. I do not get discouraged when I find out that I have done so. Instead, I learn from my mistakes and go forward in a better understanding of God’s wisdom for my life. I encourage you to do the same.
Remember, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12 NLT). It is worth the struggle to let the word of God cut us deep, getting into our hearts and changing our lives, instead of simply staying on the level of intellectual conversation in which our culture still has influence. Will you let God use his word in this way in your life today?