Thursday, April 17, 2008

Between Two Worlds: The Cultural Chasm

For a seminary course I am taking, I am reading a book on Biblical Interpretation called “Let the Reader Understand”. In the section I read today the authors discussed an idea called “distanciation” coined by P. Ricoeur. The idea, when applied to Biblical interpretation, refers to the chasm that is created between our time and the time of the Bible. This chasm is caused by our cultural assumptions and forsakes the fact that the first audience (from Biblical times) was not like me at all. Here’s a quote…
We should note that not only is a knowledge of the original culture important, but also a knowledge of our own culture. If we are unaware of our own culture, we will be unequipped to evaluate in what way our cultural conditioning is influencing our reading of the text. And if we wish to apply the meaning of the text to a present situation, we had better understand how our present culture works. (p. 148-149)
The reason I appreciate this understanding is that in my years of church experience, conferences and reading I have been exposed to ministry models that are very culturally savvy, putting great amounts of energy into understanding contemporary culture but little work into carefully interpreting scripture. I have also experienced ministries that are extremely rigorous in their study and interpretation of scripture, but are miles away from having relevant engagement with the present culture. Both models are subject to “distanciation” because they neglect one aspect of cultural understanding at the cost of the other. In most of those cases, they are even adamant in their rejection of the other cultural perspective because, in their mind, embracing the opposite cultural context violates their convictions.

My dream is for churches to take more seriously the need to combine the rigors of good Biblical interpretation with a passion for understanding the present culture and contextualizing the gospel for that culture. There are many churches doing a pretty good job, but countless more, large and small, whose convictions (and presuppositions) are keeping them from God’s mission to reach our present culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.


James said...

It's amazing all the problems we could solve if the biblical church could engage and communicate more to culture. However, a distinction must be made. From my experience, the churches that swear off today's culture aren't ones who are fighting for the culture in the days of the Bible. Rather, they're usually fighting for (or maintaining) the culture in which most of them grew up: a culture of socio-philosophical modernity and tradition to which they can connect . Even in the "worship wars," the root wasn't so much a matter of theology as it was cultural upbringing and individual association. It's amazing how attached we all unknowingly are to our own culture and approach to ministry.

Scott Sterner said...

I do agree with you James. One of the beauties of the post-modern era is an awakening to presupposationalism. The problem is, we can't escape them. We all presuppose to one measure or another. My only hope is that we get better at recognizing the presuppositions, both of our time and of the time in scripture. This way we can better understand the text and better apply it to our culture.

So many people say they are reading the Bible literally, but are really steeped in their own cultural bias without even realizing it.