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Reading the Bible Through Different Cultures’ Eyes

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.


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