I want some Chinese. There's a lot to this statement, but more on that in a minute.
My son asked me how he should deal with a situation. As we talked about the specifics, I told him to ask God by praying and reading some Scripture.
He responded, "But, God has never spoken to me like that and there's nowhere in the Bible that's going to talk about my situation.
My son's response was not accurate, but it reflects what most people think about the Bible. It reflects the general misunderstanding and disconnect American Christans have with Scripture. American Christians are biblically illiterate and it's killing the church in America.
By illiterate, I don't mean people can't read the Bible. I mean people cannot effectively access its meaning. The Bible feels foreign or alien, because, well, it is! Twenty-first century Americans will naturally struggle in trying to understand ancient Palestine. It's was a different culture and a different language.
The recent article in Newsweek by Kurt Eisenwald entitled "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin" deepens this problem. The article not only fails in its stated purpose of illuminating the Bible, it actually puts the Bible in a darker corner and covers it with blankets. In short, Mr. Eisenwald is a talented writer but completely unqualified to handle the subject.
I want some Chinese. You probably understand that I mean I want some Chinese food. We never have to think about it, but there are many layers of meaning we automatically understand in these words.
In my situation and setting, it means I will probably use my cell phone and call my favorite Chinese restaurant. The family who owns it also operates it, and even their cute kids work. I will then drive to their restaurant, which is decorated with Chinese art, and located in a shopping center. I will pay them money for the food. They will then hand me a bag with white, cardboard cartons containing the delicious, great smelling food. (Is it lunch time yet?!) Paying can be with cash or a credit/debit card and each of these forms of payment involves a different process. By paying them money, ownership of the food transfers from their restaurant to me and ownership of the money transfers from me to them. I also have expectations of good customer service and food safety. They expect that if I ordered the food by calling it in, I will show up and pay for it.
When I say, "I want some Chinese," there's a lot of meaning and social norms involved that we assume without having to think about.
The words in the Bible also had social settings that affected their meaning. The Bible was written in a culture and time where the norms and settings were very different from modern American norms. Jesus walked in a culture where the size of one's bank account did not define their social status like it does in our culture. Jesus' culture valued honor more than money. One's honor was directly connected to one's status. A peasant could have as much honor among his peers as a Roman senator could have among his peers.
The American dream is about self-advancement and this advancement is largely measured by economics. Jesus' culture did not seek self-advancement in the same way because they thought collectively, that is, as a group. It was more important to advance one's group, be it their family, their village, or their nation. If an individual sought to advance themselves above others, it brought imbalance to their community and this brought shame on the individual and the community.
This is why Jesus was killed. Those in power did not see him for who he was. They considered him to be a peasant artisan attempting to be a king or lead a revolt. Jesus was seen by the elites as getting above himself. This was dishonorable. The Romans used crucifixion for people like Jesus who got above themselves. If such people wanted to raise themselves up, then the Romans would help! They would raise them up on a cross in mocking parody! This shamed the person as they were often stripped naked and left to die slowly and horribly. They were exposed for the self-aggrandizer they were.
God used those cultural and social norms to achieve redemption for us who have sinned and follow Christ. Jesus' death on the cross took on the shame and justice we deserve for our sin. Along with his resurrection, this provides forgiveness for our sins, if we choose to receive it. We can have fellowship with God. We can have forgiveness and freedom. But only through Christ. Our culture also resists Christ and calls it bad if a believer elevates Christianity above other religions. Instead of looking for truth, people in our culture often see Christians "self-aggrandize" their faith and respond with mocking parody and ridicule.
My son and others don't want to pursue Scripture because we assume we cannot understand it or that it won't apply to our modern setting. But this is only because we are largely uninformed as American Christians. Avoiding it and not getting better informed is one factor that is killing the church in America.
Now, more than ever, we can learn about the social and cultural backgrounds of the Bible and understand it better. Scripture speaks to our situations. My son can know what God would have him do. I plan to share more about these backgrounds in the coming posts.
In the meantime, I've got a hankering for some sesame chicken and an egg roll!