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How should other cultural perspectives influence how we read scripture? In a recent podcast from Faith & Whatever, hosts James Yuile and Josh Carman interview Dr. Kip Lines to find out. My summary of their conversation and notes follow.
Dr. Kip Lines is a professor of Intercultural Studies at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, USA. He completed his Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, KY, USA following a career as a missionary in the Turkana region of Kenya. (Dr. Lines also recorded an episode discussing the pitfalls and possibilities within short-term mission trips.)
Reflection on how a community receives the Bible for the first time (2:59)
Early in their tenure among the Turkana peoples of Kenya, a translation of the Bible in their local language was completed and presented to the community. This event highlighted the ways that different cultures relate to written text and the ways that people will process information and reality and raised the question about how to connect the community’s existing interpretive practice with this “new” scripture.
Divination Methods as an Interpretive Method (5:04 and 16:33)
Dr. Lines provides an example from the Turkana culture that illustrates one of the ways that the community “read” and understood their current situation. The traditional practice of extispicy, or reading entrails, was brought into the training for how to read the Bible by utilizing the valuable aspects of group participation and a concern for the current situation of the community. This process was not without its critics, however, as later reflection upon this practice was dismissed by some, as Dr. Lines recounts. For others, however, it was liberating to hear that “the way that someone in their own context already knows and understands things is a valid way for them to use to interpret scripture”.
This story resonates with me, as it illustrates the positive cultural associations of a practice that can easily be dismissed as “occult” or “backwards thinking”. If we begin with a negative connotation, we lose what possibilities there are for incorporation into the Christian experience, as well as the people for whom these practices are significant. A similar example is the use of drumming and sweats in North American indigenous communities.
Note: These sections can be used in a small-group or Bible study session to present the topic and then discuss the ramifications. Many Bible studies function this way, as people each share their understanding of the material and application to their life. This is effectively the same interpretation, but we have removed the shared meal.
The Tension in Western Theology and Using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (10:35)
Turning to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and its balance of using Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition, there is a framework to process different perspectives. Typically, these cultural perspectives will fall under the category of Experience, though we also need to pay attention to how we assume Western priority for Reason and Tradition as well.
Christology and Different Perspectives (17:40)
Using cultural context as the starting point for understanding Christ (Christology), different aspects are highlighted and affirmed. Redeemer and Savior are two elements that are typical in a Western, American perspective, but Brother, Ancestor, Diviner are other possibilities. (See this post for an example of reading Colossians 1:15-20 with Ancestor in mind.)
From this discussion, Yuile illustrates a tension that we are familiar with terms like “Son of God” for Jesus and that Christians are “children of God”, but there is hesitancy to describe ourselves as “brothers and sisters of Christ”. I see this as a deficiency of the English language (and, perhaps, of the family structures) that there is not a sufficient vocabulary for elder brother/primary-generation-head that conveys significance
As these perspectives come together, we have this expansion of the truth of who Christ is. We also can see more clearly how Western assumptions can creep into our theology and practice. A lot of hand-wringing takes place over “boyfriend-Jesus” language used in contemporary worship and preaching in the United States. Setting aside the implications of this understanding, the process by which the image occurs is similar: utilizing something cultural familiar as a metaphorical basis for organizing our thoughts about Christ (consciously or not). Are there limitations to this practice? Of course. But we cannot adequately approach the ends without recognizing this influence of the means. And the goal is not to sanctify one specific conclusion, but to endow the process with attentiveness to the Spirit of Christ.
Benefit to the Western Academic Theologian (21:05)
A critique of scholarly Biblical interpretation is that it can be very sterile and detached from emotional. Through the integration of other perspectives, which bring with them more personal implications, can bring balance to the over-emphasis of any one cultural dominance.
As a Westerner, what can we do to humble ourselves? (23:55)
At the local church level, incorporate people who usually don’t typically share and ask them to read and reflect. Connect with other local churches who will have a different perspective. Dr. Lines provided the example of Contextual Bible Studies that were used in South Africa post-apartheid that tried to create the conversational interpretation that amplifies different perspectives (you can find more information about that here). Additionally, I would look at what resources are used in sermon preparation, worship and liturgical elements, and curriculum to see where alternative voices can be included. (If this is something you are interested in but don’t know where to start, contact me for a consultation!)
Dr. Lines also spoke to the need for Christian higher education to incorporate faculty from other institutions, and especially from other cultural contexts, to model this approach for its students training for ministry and leadership.
To go deeper on this subject, I would recommend Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes and Theology in the Context of World Christianity (Global Theology review) and, of course, reading through the posts on this blog from a variety of authors sharing their cultural perspectives on theology and Biblical interpretation.
Michael Shepherd is the editor of Global Theology.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall’s recent article, Jesus: The First Transgender Man, wades into the contemporary firestorm about transgender access to public bathrooms in the United States with a reflection about gender identity and biological determination from two- fairly important- characters from the Biblical record: Eve (Genesis 2) and Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, et al.).
Much has already been written about the flaws of seeing gender as a biological binary as well as how gender roles (and the number of gender options) are culturally formed, but her article approaches the issue using a different tact.
If we take the Genesis account in it’s literal meaning, as conservative Christians demand that we do, she is also the first case of a transgender woman. God reached into Adam, pulled out a bit of rib bone, and grew Eve from that XY DNA into Adam’s companion. She was created genetically male, and yet trans-formed into woman.
Then along comes Jesus and the whole pattern is both repeated and reversed. The first couple’s refusal to cooperate is turned around by Mary’s yes, and the second act of cloning occurs. The Holy Spirit comes upon the second Eve, and the child takes flesh from her and is born. Born of her flesh. Born with XX chromosome pairing. Born genetically female, and yet trans-formed into man.
The significance in considering how these bodies are formed should not be a biology lesson, but ought to lead us to consider how tightly we hold to cultural assumptions about gender and identity.
This is the same spirit in which we read Galatians 3:28 about other categories,
There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The differences between people are not magically erased but they no longer form the basis of our identification and relationship with one another. Any identity, gender included, is to be secondary to our identity in Christ.
Perhaps a modern reading could include that there is neither cisgender and transgender, but you are all one in Christ Jesus. If this seems scandalous, I believe that we are approaching the original intent of Paul- to show the radical inclusion that is possible within Christian community.
She concludes her post with a meaningful benediction, writing,
A quick look at the dictionary for the prefix “trans” tells us that it means “across,” “beyond,” “through,” and “changing thoroughly,” all of which are great terms for the person of Christ. He cuts across all boundaries. He is beyond our understanding. He is through all and in all. He changes us thoroughly into new creations.
In his person, and in his salvific actions, Jesus is truly the first and forever trans man.
A special blessing to those brothers and sisters (and all who may find those terms of affection difficult) to know that Christ is present with you in your journey and invites you to live deeply from your identity as a new creation in Him and full fellowship within all of God’s family.