When I read the Bible for the first time, several things surprised me and roused my curiosity to dig deeper. Two of them are relevant to you in context of this post. One, I found the Bible to be a sophisticated book. The diversity of genres (poems, letters, stories), the tension between perspectives (Song of Songs vs. Ecclesiastes), the sheer vastness of its timespan (1000+ years) compressed into the texts, and the key (the Great Commandment) it offers to guide you appealed to my bookish self. Psalms stirred me up. Letters made me wonder about long-gone receivers. Stories overshadowed my days.
Two, I found certain aspects of the Bible to be closer to my culture than to what I considered to be Christianity. The Ten Commandments stood out because I knew almost all of them before ever reading the Bible. Respect to parents? Sure, I would agree. No stealing? No problem. Prohibition of false testimony? Heck, how could I, a lawyer, disagree with that?! No adultery? Yeah, let me tell you about honor killing! This was not the Christianity I saw in American movies. At the time, I did not have a clue that our perception of a faith in our own culture colors our understanding of any faith in any other culture. It’s like when you watch an American movie and assume that everyone in that movie is Christian (including non-Christians) because in your own country 95% of people could be said to follow the dominant religion.
To me, Christianity depicted in American movies was about a corrupted Bible, pastors who were plotting adultery, and drunk Russians sleeping on the roadsides of my city. You would probably agree that my experiences gave me a distorted picture of a particular faith. Although later my perspective on Christianity changed, those memories still inform my approach to the Bible. In the right context, they are actually an advantage. I read the Bible with the awareness that inevitably I — like everyone else — impose my cultural lenses onto the Bible. But the point is not to read the Bible without any cultural assumptions, as if we need to get rid of all cultural lenses or assumptions. That attempt cannot succeed.
The Bible itself contains layers of perspectives informed by the many cultures of its authors. The point is to be aware of their assumptions and then use that awareness to your own advantage. We can peel away prejudices that you and I bring into the reading experience. We can also use our cultural lenses to interpret the Bible creatively and make it relevant to our context. Of course, you can become aware of your cultural lenses on your own without experiencing any other culture, but I firmly believe that the insights from other cultures will broaden your self-awareness and make your reading of the Bible highly effective. It is one thing to be aware that the American culture is individualistic. It is quite another to live in India or learn some concrete elements of Indian culture and know what it means to be community-oriented. When you have the context to compare and the actual experience of living in another culture, your experience gains real dimension. It is not abstract anymore. It is a down-to-earth kind of knowing.
The imperfect shortcut to a way of deepening your Bible reading experience is to seek out and gain insight from other cultures. By other cultures I mean any other worldview or ways of living you have difficulty identifying with. Do you have difficulty identifying with refugees? That’s another culture for you. Admittedly, this is a very loose and generic definition because refugees from Syria have different ways of living from refugees who came from Rwanda. But I’m not chasing after an academically calibrated definition. I’m chasing after a way to help you with minimal guidance so that you can get going on your own.
In a sense, these insights from other cultures on the Bible and on life are necessary to deepen your comprehension of the Scripture. The simplest reason I can give you is that the Bible itself comes from another culture separated from us in time and space. By learning from the insights of other cultures, you will be able to put your interpretation of the Bible into the right context and wrestle with its cultural ingredients without feeling alienated.
Take for example Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” You can find that same “kiss one another” statement in 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, and 1 Thess. 5:26. Now, can you imagine entering an average American church and kissing someone you see only once a week whether male or female? I can’t imagine myself doing that. These kinds of verses remind us that certain cultural practices are lost to us and belong to another culture in another time and another place. Do you think it is relevant to us today? If yes, then how? Just google some interpretations of these verses and see how pastors wrestle to grasp these “kiss one another” statements.
But what if I told you we could interpret these “kiss one another” statements in a different way, based on the cultural insights I gained from my own country? The point is not necessarily that we will find out exactly what the author meant. The point is that we can gain a new perspective that makes the verse relevant to us in a current way. It does not disregard the literal meaning, but it goes beyond that and gives you freedom. Before I tell you how it is possible to interpret these verses based on the cultural insight I have to offer, let me give you my background. I grew up in a place (ever heard of Azerbaijan? Anyone?) where people’s way of greeting each other often indicates the level of closeness between them. Acquaintances may nod when they greet. Close friends may shake one another’s hands. Even closer friends may hug.
When I was at the university, really close friends would actually hug and often kiss one another on the cheek as a sign of greeting. It is difficult to consider that a full kiss because the contact would be very light, more so a gesture than a full blown smooch. But that kind of greeting would happen only between two very close friends (almost like siblings) who would do so by taking cues from one another that outsiders would miss. It would be impossible to greet someone in that way if one of the friends did not consider the other one to be close enough as to allow a kiss on the cheek. Close female friends in Azerbaijan still continue to greet one another in this way.
Now, in that context, kissing one another on the cheek could be taken as an indication of a deep friendship. Because of this experience, when I first read the “kiss one another” verses, I thought Paul was inviting believers to develop a really close brotherly or sisterly relationship. He does not tell this to us directly because that would be less effective. From a rhetorical point-of-view, Paul elicits that closeness in us by pointing out the concrete action that may follow from that sort of relationship. So “kiss one another” is kind of a metonymy that represents an invitation to closeness. In other words, the author is not commanding us literally to kiss every time we meet. Paul urges us to be as close as the closeness he witnessed epitomized in the greetings of the closest of friends: hugging and sometimes kissing one another.
I would not be able to interpret Paul’s “kiss one another” phrase in the Bible this way had I not experienced that practice of greeting myself. Now, remember that I’m not claiming this interpretation to be exactly what Paul meant or the only right interpretation. All I’m claiming is that certain cross-cultural insights may enrich your understanding of the Bible. Here are more reasons for you to seek out the insights of other cultures on the Bible and on life to better interpret the scripture.
First, the insights from other cultures can nuance your perspective on biblical teachings. Unless you want to have an oversimplified perspective that makes your application of the Bible as rigid and brittle as rotten wood, you owe it to your God and to yourself to develop a deep and contextualized perspective on the biblical teachings. Learning insights that other cultures offer on the scriptural material would help you accomplish that. By nuanced perspective I mean a perspective that is sensitive to the details of culture, location, and of human lives. By nuanced perspective I mean a subtle one that is firm, based on a thoughtful and cultivated reflection on the scripture.
You can nuance your perspective by learning about the insights other cultures have to offer. Let me give you a little example. As you may know, death and rebirth is one of the prominent themes in Hinduism or in faith traditions bundled together under the name of Hinduism that spread throughout Asia. According to the concept of reincarnation in these traditions, people die and are born over and over again until they gain freedom from this cycle. I’m not a specialist on Hinduism, so I can’t claim anything more specific than this general knowledge, but even so, I was still able to gain a new perspective on Christ’s saving work just based on this understanding.
Several years ago, I read an article about a Christian from a Hindu background that changed my understanding of Christ’s reaches forever. The man, who was interviewed by a Christian magazine, stated that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross broke the cycle of reincarnation and set him free. I was struck by his interpretation because I always thought of salvation as a process that sets us free from sin. But this man’s interpretation of Christ’s saving work that was clearly influenced by his Hindu background enriched my own understanding of salvation. Now, you may disagree whether reincarnation is real or not. But a significant size of humanity believes in it, and when someone contextualizes Christ’s saving work for that part of humanity, I believe it enriches our understanding of Christ’s work too. Christ’s death and resurrection reaches and affects all doctrines whether they are real or not. Christ’s saving work sets us free from real and phantom experiences that bind us even if those experiences are connected to a very deep and uncontrollable side of our existence.
Second, the insights from another culture may give you a chance to do more effective evangelization or mission work. I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when I say this, but I have seen many American friends just give lip service to the insights from other cultures, so let me repeat it here. It really does help to gain some insights from other cultures when it comes to evangelization and mission work. The simplest example would be to know how a shame-and-honor culture compares to a guilt-based culture. When you interact with a Japanese person, your awareness of the “losing face” concept may help you avoid unnecessary conflicts. You would be a better witness to Christ by being a culturally aware Imago Dei than just an ignorant Christian who thinks he has the right to invade someone else’s faith world simply because Christ brings salvation.
Third, the insights from other cultures may stimulate a higher level of self-awareness and a better understanding of your own culture. This is obviously not for everyone unless you are willing to understand yourself better in the context of a given culture. I have discovered that not everyone wants to know himself in depth because such knowledge often unearths some hidden pain. But if you are willing to increase your self-awareness as a culturally-bound person, then the insights from other cultures can be a good way of starting your journey.
For example, one of the insights I learned from American culture (now my adopted culture) that helped me become more self-aware was how Americans can’t seem to tolerate silence. If you grew up in a society where silence is accepted more than it is in America, you would soon be aware that in this country if you sit with people without saying a word for even a short time, the locals may think you’re weird. It helps you appreciate silence in a different way. After all the muzak you hear in supermarkets, you will learn how much you value silence and your time being silent in God’s presence.
That said, I hope that what I wrote here will encourage you to seek out what other cultures have to say about the Bible, faith, and life. Do you have more reasons to seek out the insights from other cultures in order to understand the Bible better? Let me know.