Part 2: Scripture and Culture
In the first part of this series, Christianity and Culture PART 1: Asking the Right Questions, I explored the definitions of culture and Christianity in the sense of following Christ, and looked at how we can tell if a battle is really between Christ and culture, or just a battle between cultural preferences. I also looked at areas where the teachings of Christ very much conflict with culture, but Evangelicals have chosen the culture over Christ.
I also should note, after a discussion with a Catholic colleague of mine, that my particular perspective is that of a Protestant, but also one raised in the Evangelical tradition. While I do not necessarily agree with the Catholic or Orthodox positions on everything, their perspectives on culture are often different.
In this installment, I hope to set forth my own approach to scripture and determining what speaks to our own challenges, and what is the cultural baggage from the time it was written.
I will disclose at the outset that I am not a theologian. I will not pretend to make a thoroughgoing theological defense of my position. I will particularly not attempt to convince believers in the literal dictation of an inerrant scripture direct from the mouth of God that my approach is correct. I cannot hope to convince them, I’m afraid, because their belief system will inevitably be theonomic. That is, knowing right from wrong will be solely a matter of teasing all the rules out of the bible and enforcing them as literally as possible. (At least the ones they want to. Love Your Neighbor isn’t usually one that is taken literally at all. Or the one about embracing immigrants and refugees...) Believe me, I grew up in that culture and belief system. Theonomy, Dominionism, Reconstructionism. Old Testament Sharia law. Been there, done that. Didn’t get a T-Shirt. (Blue slacks and white shirts only…)
But let’s be honest, nobody, past or present, takes all of scripture literally. For example, every single one of the hard-core theonomists I have had a discussion with are vehemently anti-immigration. So it is pretty obvious that they do not literally believe that Christ will send them to hell for turning away the stranger. Each and every one of us picks and chooses, interprets and applies. We make choices. Or, more often, we let professional Christians make them for us. We let doctrinal statements, theological frameworks, and pastors or priests make those decisions for us. And, in the Culture Wars™, we let people and organizations with political motives and agendas make those decisions. (See, for example, pro-segregationists Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell Sr. and modern racists like Jerry Falwell Jr. and the spokespeople for the American Family Association.)
My intent, therefore, is to explain my own framework for addressing the issue of culture in scripture and how I seek to resolve the ensuing conflicts and issues. Ultimately, I believe that the Law of Love is primary, and we should look at the fruit if we want to know if the tree - or doctrine - is good. If something doesn’t look like love in our culture and circumstances, it probably needs to be carefully reevaluated as it may turn out to be inseparable from the culture in which it developed.
Let me start with the premises that I accept:
- The bible, while inspired by God (in my belief system), was written by humans, and subject to human limitations, prejudices, and cultural baggage.
I’m going to give some credit to Peter Enns and Christine Hayes among others for insight into this. The bible was written - and collected - and revised - by many different people over at least a couple thousand years. These people had different beliefs, theology, points of emphasis, prejudices, cultures, and blind sides, just like all humans. Just as we should not be surprised to find that the bible’s creation story is a retelling of a prior myth and assumes an Ancient Near East cosmology and science, we should not be surprised to find that other parts of scripture reflect the attitudes and beliefs and prejudices of the times and cultures in which they were written. So, we should expect to find a belief that women are the chattel of men in the Old Testament (and often in the New), because those were the beliefs of the time in which it was written. We should expect to find acceptance and regulation of polygyny and slavery and genocide because those were endemic to the culture of the time and place. We should expect that Aristotle’s philosophy will dominate the discussion of gender - and indeed all household relations in the New Testament, because his philosophy dominated the Greco-Roman world (and still reverberates today.) We should expect that women will be spoken of as if they were intellectually, morally, physically, and spiritually inferior to males, because nearly everyone believe that up until the Feminist movements beginning just over 200 years ago. In fact, we should be surprised when we don’t see these cultural prejudices.
Because of these human prejudices and limitations, we should not assume that specific rules should apply in every case, or that the cultural assumptions of the authors of the bible were correct. The authors of the Torah may not have understood slavery to be wrong - but it is. The authors of the Torah may have believed that male ownership of females was appropriate - but it isn’t. Saint Paul may or may not have believed that women were as inferior to men as men are to God - but that doesn’t mean that men are superior to women.
We should assume these cultural prejudices and baggage exist, and take them into account in our interpretation.
And that leads to the second premise:
2. We should pay particular attention where the bible appears to speak in opposition to the culture in which it is written.
So when Saint Paul talks about men and women, his acceptance of the fact that women were legally obligated to obey men is much less interesting than his radical assertion that men are to love and sacrifice for women.
Likewise, where Christ’s words stand in stark opposition to the culture and values of His time, we need to listen and take those words to heart.
And the flip side:
3. Where the bible appears to affirm the culture in which it is written, we should be extremely wary of applying that affirmation to our present culture.
This was one major mistake that the pro-slavery Christians made in the runup to the American Civil War. They truly believed God was on their side, and had all the scripture verses to prove it. In the Dominionist culture in which I spent time, the restoration of Patriarchy, whether on the Old Testament or New Testament cultural models was the foundation of the entire belief system. And at least in the hard-core cult-like groups, they were honest that literal implementation of the rules required a return to the culture of the ancient Near East. Or, for another egregious example, religious purges from the Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials have relied on the cultural belief that religion was to be enforced at the point of a sword. Most of us Christians in our modern times, even the conservative ones, have rejected this idea.
In the same way, when we encounter cultural beliefs in the bible, we should be careful to not assume that they are true just because a writer of the bible believed them to be true. This should be particularly true of beliefs of the past which seem immoral. We do not have to accept that we should dash the brains of the infants of our enemies out on rocks, even if some writers of the Old Testament believed God commanded them to do it. We do not have to believe that women are inferior to men just because that belief is foundational to the gender relations we find in the New Testament. We do not believe it is appropriate to kill women who don’t bleed on the wedding night, even though this was considered normal by the writers of the Torah.
And this leads to the conclusion:
4. Interpreting and applying scripture requires sifting out the cultural baggage or else we end up applying the prejudices and injustices of the culture of the past to our lives - and the lives of others - as if it were God’s will.
The most forceful argument that my atheist friends and prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins have been able to make against Christianity is this: we excuse great evil and injustice because it was excused in our sacred writing. And worse, we enshrine evil and injustice as the will of God to be imposed on others. Yes, we have committed genocide in the name of God. Yes, we justified slavery with an appeal to scripture. Yes, we currently tell women that their worth is primarily in their hymens and that they are to obey men. Yes, we tell women that they are more virtuous if they have children and stay at home with them than if they forego children or work outside the home. (Not all, but this is a strong idea in Evangelical culture.) Yes, we tolerate teachers who tell women to stay and be beaten. These are indeed evils we have and continue to perpetrate in the name of our God. To the extent that these constitute “Christianity,” Dawkins and Hitchens are absolutely right: the world will be a better place when these ideas go away.
And they come back to the same error: The culture of the past is not pure and clean. It is full of injustice, evil, oppression, hate, and violence. It also contains nobility, good, love, and kindness, of course, because every culture, including our own, is a mix of good and evil, kindness and hate, and so on. And despite what Evangelicalism loves to insist, it wasn’t better in the past. (If you take violence as your measure, then you can make a solid argument that 21st Century America is a far less evil place than Ancient Israel. And also that Western Europe is currently less evil than America. Or you could look at how well we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, care for widows and orphans. I think Christ himself said something about that.)
This is why the error is so damaging in the Culture Wars™. It ends up supporting the injustices of the past, whether segregation (the reason the Religious Right was established - to restore segregation to Bob Jones University and other “christian” schools) - or gender roles. And it ends up ignoring the parts of scripture which truly conflict with our own culture.
How does it look when you focus on the ways that scripture went against its own culture?
Here are some examples. In a culture that assumed child sacrifice was normal and acceptable, Abraham’s hand was held back.
4000 years ago, we openly sacrificed humans to the gods to ensure a good harvest. During the slave trade and the conquest of America, we sacrificed brown skinned people to the god of Manifest Destiny. During Jim Crow, we let black children die for lack of food and medical care. Now we watch refugees drown as a sacrifice to the god of National Security, and attempt to take medical care away from the poor, elderly and disabled so they can quietly die where we don't have to watch. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now...
In an Ancient Near East where the previous codes gave different penalties to slaves, freemen, and aristocrats for the same act, the Torah imposed the same penalty on all.
In a culture where tribalism reigned and immigrants were treated as slaves, the Torah says that the immigrant is to be treated exactly the same as a native. Why? Because YHWH is the God of immigrants - and the Israelites too were immigrants. (When is the last time you heard a sermon on this?)
In a culture where the rich preyed on the poor, paying them starvation wages, while accumulating multiple houses and vast wealth, believing that their keeping of the religious rituals and beliefs would make God happy, the prophets came and denounced them and proclaimed that the nation would be destroyed because of their greed. (Does this sound at all familiar?)
In an era when religious and racial purity was considered an important goal, the writer of Jonah sets forth a parable with the opposite lesson: even our enemies can become part of the Kingdom of God, not by adopting cultural or religious practices, but by repentance from the perpetration of violence. (Nineveh was the symbol for violence and genocide - the Sin City of violence, if you will.)
Christ comes on the scene and castigates the religious establishment for its focus on purity and self righteousness, piling burdens on others while being unwilling to give assistance. He preached an upside down kingdom where the weak are strong, the first will be last, and hierarchies are blown up. He invited a woman, a woman! to “sit at his feet,” which meant in that culture that he had invited her to train under him as a rabbi. And then scolded her sister for trying to get her back to her gender appropriate place in the kitchen.
He refused to enforce sexual rules against those would were on the wrong end of society’s power differential, and didn’t scold the woman at the well, but chose her as his emissary. His life was a life of service to the vulnerable and warning to the rich and powerful.
In the two times Christ talked (arguably) about hell (Matthew 25 and Luke 16), he didn’t mention theological orthodoxy or sexual behavior, or adherence to cultural standards, but explicitly tied our destiny to how we treated the poor and the aliens.
Following in Christ’s example, Saint Paul and others upheld a vision of masculinity as being about kindness, sacrifice, and meekness - in stark contrast to the Roman obsession with masculine bravado and power.
These are just a few of the ways that scripture pushes back at a culture of power, of violence, of greed, of exclusion, of hierarchy, of a lack of love. Once you subtract out those areas where the existing culture is tacitly accepted, you start to see this pattern emerge. And it is amazing how much these things speak to our own culture of greed and power and so on.
The Pattern of the Culture Wars™
In contrast to the pattern seen when the cultural baggage is taken out of the equation, there is a contrary pattern to the Culture Wars™
Instead of looking at the ways Christ (and the scripture) opposed the culture of their days, the focus is looking for the ways that the culture of the past is different from the present - and choseing the past. And thus, the emphasis is on perpetuating the the injustices of the past, recreating that past, and punishing those who violate their cultural preferences.
I believe the reasons for this are thus:
- The Fundamentalist (and Evangelical) belief that the Bible was dropped out of the sky by God, insulated from the culture in which it was written.
This is a fundamental difference that I have with Evangelicalism on the nature of the Bible, and I believe it is a significant reason for the Culture Wars™. Combine this with a Theonomic approach, and you end up viewing the scriptures as God’s Little Instruction Book™ containing a map for human living - and indeed a template for “godly” culture. Thus, the focus is on searching for rules, and missing the revolution.
2. Comparing cultural differences between the past and present as the basis for morality.
For the expressly Theonomic sorts I grew up with, the Bible was written in a specific place and time because that particular time was the best example of “Godly” culture, and that we must adopt those cultural preferences. I suspect this was in part because if you plan to enforce Old Testament laws, you need the culture too, or the rules make no sense whatsoever. This was, to a large extent, the way the original Mormons approached culture too. They just went the whole way to polygyny. Ditto for the modern day FLDS - they are trying to re-create the culture of the Ancient Near East.
For American Evangelicals, I don’t think they have quite that rigorous of an approach. Rather, they already have the idea that the past - specifically some combination of the 1950s and the 1850s - was the pinnacle of "godliness," and read their Bibles to see how the culture of those times looks more like their preferred past and less like the present. And then those are the rules to enforce. In both cases, it is the injustices of the past that get perpetuated.
3. A focus on Culture as the basis for Christian Living.
I think this is about the only way to explain the fact that Cultural Warriors - and many Evangelicals - can find all kinds of ways to nuance around the commands of Christ in most areas, but are adamant that certain cultural beliefs are sacrosanct. This is why, for example, beliefs about sexuality are THE litmus test for orthodoxy, yet beliefs about how we treat immigrants and refugees are most certainly not.
As I have experienced it, there is a general approach to the Bible that looks for rules to apply to cultural issues first. Or, perhaps, looking to find ways the Bible can be used to justify one’s cultural preferences. (I think this is more likely.)
In particular, of course, the obsession of the Cultural Warriors centers around a particular area of culture: what genitals a person has, what this means they should be like, and what they do with said genitals.
The Religious Right (the term I find best for describing the political-cultural organizations carrying on the Culture Wars™) was originally founded to preserve racial purity. This never really went away. We just call the contempt for non-white culture a case of Christ versus Culture. The focus of the Culture Wars™ now is the use of money and political power to enforce certain sexual rules and certain cultural - and political - preferences. If you give money to Culture War™ organizations, you should be aware that they generally do NOT support the Violence Against Women Act (because it promotes the feminist idea that abuse is about power, or that women are justified in leaving abusers), they oppose the social safety net, particularly aid to children (which guys like the AFA’s Bryan Fischer say enable African Americans to “rut like rabbits”). They tend to sell propaganda claiming that it is God’s will that all women be stay at home moms, that women should obey their husbands, and stay even if they are beaten. They stoke hysteria about toys that are not gender specific enough (see: easy bake ovens for boys), promote gender essentialism and Victorian gender roles. They spread lies, conspiracy theories, and hate about LGBTQ people and Muslims. You will see them attempt to bully retail clerks into endorsing their religion. The common thread in this is a belief that a return to the white middle-class culture of the past, a whiter, pre-feminist past, is God’s will, and that political action is needed to make it so.
What you will not see from these organizations: any use of political power to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give medical care to the sick, stop mass incarceration, or welcome immigrants and refugees. You will not see them stand up for the interests of the weak, but instead seek to benefit the powerful. You will see them line up to endorse a man whose entire life seems a calculated antithesis to the example and teachings of Christ - and even expressly say that their support is because this man will keep the poor, brown skinned people out.
I think we need to ask ourselves if this has any real relation to Christ. Or is this really just about imposing our culture and our privilege on everyone else.
Note: I am by no means a flaming liberal. I lean center-right as far as politics go, and I am a moderate in the sense that I believe our political systems work best when we have compromise and dialogue about how to solve problems. I left the GOP in 2013 because it had become apparent during the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act (or whatever the hell the GOP eventually decided they did it for…) that the GOP no longer shared the goal of making our country better for everyone. I had believed during the Reagan and Bush (both of them) years that we shared the common goal of providing health care, food, and a living wage to anyone willing to work - we just differed politically about how to best accomplish those goals. Instead, the last few years have shown that the philosophy of Ayn Rand has taken over the GOP. (Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, and Rand Paul - interesting name that - are expressly Rand acolytes.) Objectivism, at its heart, is an atheistic belief in Social Darwinism. (Don’t confuse this with Secular Humanism, which is quite opposite politically, although it too is secular.) So for the dominant wing of the “new” GOP, it is considered a positive social good if some people do without health care, if the poor have to fend for themselves on ever-declining wages, and education becomes a privilege for the wealthy rather than something provided to all. That this appeals to the Religious Right isn’t really a surprise. A movement founded in segregation - literally the denial of access to society to a disfavored group - is likely to embrace the same result by other means.
Don’t take me to mean that there are no Evangelical organizations which are doing good work in following Christ’s commands. Nothing makes me prouder to be a Christian than the many men and women in the medical field who volunteer overseas - and risked their lives treating ebola patients. (Even if Ann Coulter - who is sure beloved by the Religious Right - considers them fools.) I also commend the various organizations dedicated to eliminating world hunger, assisting third world families in obtaining education, and so on. Even more than this, there are still some individual churches who work to feed the hungry through food pantries, feeding and clothing the homeless, and assisting families who need medical care. And many individuals are personally generous on their own in this area.
My beef is with Culture War™ organizations, and the Evangelical Industrial Complex, who are usually far more visible, vocal, and well financed than those organizations who perform actual charity. And as far as political lobbying, the white Evangelical focus is clearly on the Culture Wars™, and on the exclusion of others, not on easing the burdens of the less fortunate.
It is beyond the scope of this post to go into too much detail - I may do that in the future - but I do want to mention that the areas of sexuality and gender are particularly connected with the culture. Views of men and women (and specifically the inferiority of women) are intimately tied up together with sexual rules and taboos. Furthermore, such terms as “marriage,” “adultery,” and “divorce” do not mean what they did back in Biblical times. Four years ago, for example, I wrote about the legal status of women as property, and the way that this explains some seemingly bizarre laws and stories in the Old Testament. From the sexual double standard (including the way that modern Evangelicals excuse predatory behavior from rich dirty old men) to proscription of male homosexuality to the denial of the biological existence of intersexuals, you cannot separate the cultural beliefs about sex, gender, and sexuality from each other. We should tread very carefully when interpreting scripture in these areas because of the intertwined cultural beliefs about the inferiority of women and the resulting ownership of them and their bodies by men. The more I have studied the writings of the past, the more I am struck by how it is all connected.
This survey on attitudes and actions of American Christians is fascinating. Do our attitudes and actions resemble those of Christ? Or those of the Pharisees? It isn’t perfect (I note once again the lack of questions with racial implications, and fact that in my experience, people exaggerate their good attitudes and actions), but it does have some interesting demographic breakdowns. Particularly unlikely to have christlike attitudes and actions are seniors and men. This is absolutely zero surprise to me. Most of the culture war hate I have experienced and seen has come from Baby Boomers. And pretty much all of the Social Darwinism crap has come from privileged males. (Hmm, maybe their sense of self-worth and “godliness” comes from their wallets, not their hearts…)
And this one, which I think has a misleading headline. It should read: “When the Church Loves Political Power. [full stop] And Doesn’t Love People Who Aren’t Exactly Like Themselves. [full stop]” Unfortunately, as this last election - and especially the rhetoric before and after by Religious Right figures - has proven, the damage done to people classified as “the other” is looked on as a desirable result, not just collateral damage.