More on the cultural gap in reading Scripture (McGrath)

James McGrath in The Only True God (page 100) (via Mike Whitenton, as part of the debate about expert vs. amateur biblical interpretation. In addition to the links he has, I’ll add this one by Doug Chaplin.)

[The fact that early Christians were completely unlike us in terms of world view and cultural context] is an unsettling result, to be sure, for those accustomed to read these writings as sacred Scripture, and in particular for Protestants who traditionally emphasize that anyone at all can read and interpret that Bible. The truth of the matter, for those readers without knowledge of ancient languages, ancient cultures, and other such subjects, the meaning of the Bible is at times not all clear, while at other times it can seem to clearly mean things that it is unlikely to have meant in its original context.

The possibility of misunderstanding a reader today in a Western cultural setting is at least as great as the chances that the same individual will experience a cultural or linguistic misunderstanding if traveling to a foreign culture. [Emphasis mine.]

By emphasizing these points, I do not wish to discourage interested individuals from reading the Bible in English translation – far from it. it is important, however, for all readers to understand that they are having the Bible interpreted for them by those who have translated it into their native language and are then engaging in interpretation themselves through the act of reading. The books they are reading derive from a very different world, and therefore one should not cease reading but should utilize the multitude of books and other resources that scholars have made available, expressly with the aim of helping readers make sense of these ancient texts. Having done that, one should then go on to express one’s conclusions about what these writings mean with an appropriate humility and tentativeness, aware that what seems obvious to a reader today may not have been what seemed obvious to a first-century reader.

A few additional thoughts:

  • “it is important for all readers to recognize . . .” Bingo! Even just recognizing the gap makes a world of a difference.
  • I wonder how many people have actually been immersed in a completely different language and culture to know how disorienting it can be.
  • This gives me yet another opportunity to state something my African colleagues are always telling me, “There’s often more meaning in the cultural context around the text than within the text itself.” In other words, the text is often pointing to a much bigger reality that can only be understood by being more familiar with the cultural context. It only hints at what really is going on.
  • We’d probably be a lot better off keeping the focus on the big picture (the main overall story) and be humble about your own ability to interpret; most problems seem to arise when interpreters pretend to be authoritative and prescriptive.
  • The cultural gap demonstrates the importance of mother-tongue translations. If translations are already interpretations, for a majority of the world’s population, reading a Bible in English is adding yet another layer of cultural and worldview obscurity.
  • It strikes me that one of the main problems may not be a naive first reading of Scripture, but rather that by the time we get to reading the scriptures for ourselves, we’ve already been loaded with so many interpretive assumptions (usually over-simplified caricatures of something someone else—who struggled with the Bible for a long time—said.)  (Besides, most of the debates are really about “boundary formation” – what makes “us” right (better) and “them” wrong (bad).)
  • the big fear is always heresy. it’s an important fear, a real fear. but some of the worst heresies have come from pretty good biblical exegetes. so beware of heresy, but don’t become so obsessed by its possibility that you snuff out the Living Word. (besides, most heresy hunting is done against people with only slightly different interpretations; they get linked with the big heretics of history for effect. )
  • As maligned as ‘reader-response’ is, the sooner we recognize that this is what we all have already been doing, the better off we might be. Reader-response is especially meaningful when reading books like the Psalms.

on . . . “utilize the multitude of books and other resources that scholars have made available, expressly with the aim of helping readers make sense of these ancient texts.”

1. Most of the people I know are lucky to have access to a Bible—much less a multitude of scholarly books.

2. I’d be curious to know what books McGrath has in mind here. One of the main things I do is help M.Div students try to find scholarly books on biblical subjects of interest to them. Some thoughts along those lines:

  • Most scholarly books are so tied up in specific academic debates that they are almost totally useless to helping the common person with the cultural context. In addition to those that are simply poorly written, you normally have to wade through a ton of irrelevant information; even then, you may get to the end and a relevant interpretive suggestion has still not been made.
  • Most academic writing I know still doesn’t understand the most important cultural contexts. I only know a handful of academics that are multi-cultural enough to understand the these dynamics. Even if we sic an anthropologist or sociologist on a culture that is readily available for study today, armed with all the latest research tools, we are still barely scratching the surface of the cultures we already have access to.
  • We (the academically oriented) wind up trying to load way too much on some parallel ancient document or something that was scratched on a pot that was dug out of the ground. For all we know, what survived may actually be anomalous within its original context; it may be the exception rather than the rule. (Writing itself represents a certain class of society.)
  • New knowledge isn’t necessarily better for interpreting scripture. In college, they told me that what I learned in Sunday school wasn’t quite right. In seminary, they taught me that what I learned in college wasn’t quite right. Now that I’m doing my PhD, I recognize that some of the stuff I learned at every level was right on, and some of it was exactly wrong. I would have been better off skipping some hermeneutics or Bible backgrounds classes entirely–and I have been blessed with a pretty good education. (As much as I hate to say this, it is especially true of almost every theology course I took in seminary.) So when some young dynamic, effective pastor asks me if he should go to seminary, I hesitate…Yes and no; there are tradoffs. In my experience, some of the worst exegetes have PhDs in biblical studies; education is no guarantee. (Where do you think a lot of these seminary educated pastors get their hair-brained ideas?  ;-)
  • To be meaningful, we need both critical scholarship AND belief. Scholarship by unbelievers, while it may be helpful for understanding the cultural context, too often misses the ultimate point. (Why bother?) Scholarship by believers that doesn’t take into consideration the full cultural worldview of its original context is just as disingenuous, makes the cultural gap more rigid, and creates substantially more false interpretations. (I want to say, “Fear not! God is big enough to handle it.”)
  • Understanding the cultural context is more of a lifelong journey than finding answers in books. I grew up with the Bible (enough to ace my seminary’s English Bible exam before ever taking a single class) and have three degrees related to Biblical studies. Granted I’m one of the more dull pencils in the box, but I feel like I’m just now beginning to understanding some of the cultural implications of certain books (and I’m even more confused about others). I also feel like a lot more cultural and linguistic data needed to fully understand some of the finer points is irretrievable because we can no longer empirically test what people of those worlds would have understood by those words.
  • Even people from the exacts same cultural context and worldview (e.g. NT—the original NT audiences), appear to have debated the meaning of their Scriptures (our OT) pretty strongly.
  • As far as amateur vs. expert, there are no guarantees any way you look at it.

So there are a few random thoughts. I’m sure if I was living in a different context, the tone of this post might be significantly different.

I guess all I’m trying to reflect (sparked by McGrath’s point) is that serious biblical scholarship—learning the original languages and the ancient cultural contexts—is valuable, but it is not a panacea. It can create as many problems as it solves. So I am a bit schizophrenic in this regard. On the one hand, I’ve been privileged to devote most of my life to trying to understanding more about the Bible in its original contexts—something I really enjoy. On the other hand, I know that some of the most important insights I gain from the Bible—the meanings probably closest to the original intent—come from my kids when they ask pointed questions or from the uneducated man at the fruit stand. Both of them understand recognize their own limitations in reading the Bible, and both of them have had some kind of personal encounter with the God they see active in the Bible—they know and trust him even if they don’t fully understand everything that is going on.

Which brings me back to the big ideas—the main points, the overall trajectories…the story. Even though these take on different nuances over time (even within the Scripture), I think most of us can agree on and “get” the big picture. If we spent as much time thinking about and applying the big story to our current lives and contexts as we do trying to culturally misunderstand the finer points of doctrine, we’d probably be a lot closer to the original meaning of our Bible texts.

UPDATE: McGrath adds this paragraph at the end of a long post on Jesus the Mystic in the Gospel of John

…That a scholar holds a viewpoint doesn’t make it correct, and that someone without a PhD holds a viewpoint doesn’t make it incorrect. What a rigorous academic approach contributes, even if it is practiced by a well-informed layperson, is an awareness of the relevant evidence beyond the range of ways an English translation of the Bible can be understood, of the history of interpretation of these texts over the centuries in the early church (and beyond), and the brute fact that while some interpretations are simply incompatible with the evidence, a number of different conclusions have been reached by equally intelligent people wrestling to make sense of the same evidence. And so ideally, what anyone, scholar or layperson, should bring to a consideration of such (indeed all!) matters is a combination of relevant information and the humility to recognize that I may be wrong. And what I think most scholars would like to see is not that other interested individuals refrain from commenting on matters in their area of expertise, but that interested parties outside of the academy take the time and effort to inform themselves and think critically about a subject before jumping into the fray.

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2 thoughts on “More on the cultural gap in reading Scripture (McGrath)

  1. James Pate says:

    Hi Ben. What do you think about the IVP Bible Background Commentaries? I think they’re accessible to the lay-person, and I’ve been told that they’re produced by reputable scholars. Yet, I wish it cited sources for its claims.

  2. Ben says:

    IVP Bible Background Commentaries are pretty good, but they have some of the same limitations all one-volume commentaries do. I forget who did the OT, but I know Keener (NT) is pretty well-read in Greco-Roman and related Jewish literature.

    I think the biggest hurdle is how to enter into the worldview and cultural thinking of those time, so that we can know the kinds of things they would assume or infer from the text. That is really hard to do without some significant study–a lot of academics I know don’t even do that apart from a very thin slice of specialization.

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