In the previous article on Emerging Concerns I addressed the topic of Post-modernism and the Emergent church at a more academic or philosophic level. Here in this article I hope to break the concerns down and describe them more at the level in which they are seen or heard about in everyday life. This article will focus on Culture and subsequent articles will cover the other topics in the progression of post-modern thought. Post-modern thoughts and ideas may have started in Universities, the Arts and political circles but it has made its way down to everyday life. It can be found in both subtle as well as radical forms. So it is time to be more practical in how we look at it.
Views of the previous generations placed value on facts, truth and knowing how things work. Now people are more cynical about the truth, we distrust that the sincerity and value of truth might extend beyond my community and group of friends. How many times have you heard someone say “well that is your opinion”? Which is essentially saying all your opinions must be wrong so I have no problem ignoring it; even if you are just restating something from the bible, it’s your interpretation so its still your opinion. This really is where post-modernism and the Emergent Church starts. After all we have friends, family, a heritage, and a language; don’t the ideas and how we look at the world come from that? Is not all this which we term our “culture” the spring board from which we face life. The individualism of the past few generations was all too self-focused and lonely. But then few ever really took it that far; its hard to move forward without support. We found that “me” just isn’t big enough and are now looking to “us” to fill the void.
Hey meat head, how come all you non-conformists dress a like? – Archie Bunker
Culture as a Foundation for Understanding and Communication
If we continue to look back through history we see other cultures until we progress back to the Jewish – Greek – Roman culture Christianity started in and then back to the Jewish – Egyptian – Persian culture the Old Testament was written in it would seem that one culture gives way to another. You may have run into this while taking a bible class, Christian radio or even a teaching at your church and not realized it. One bible class talks about understanding the circumstances of the time, people, language and then to bridge the gap between their circumstances and ours. Another theologian makes the statement that the bible was written for us but was written to them; the ancient people in their culture. Another teacher goes so far as to say that the ancient world of Mesopotamia had an entirely different world view and unless we know their ancient literature we can’t understand the bible. One of my friends read a recent book from this author that totally undermined the understanding of the first five books of the Bible. He had taught from books written by this author about the Old Testament and upon looking back saw how the author had progressed in this view making culture foundational to understanding. Knowing about the ancient cultures in which the bible was inspired and written is a good thing. However post-modern thought goes too far down this path. Its confidence in the idea of the progressive development of man switches the foundation for communication and understanding from God as creator to humankind and their present state of progress; in other words their culture at the time.
Having placed such stock in this idea of humanities progress and cultural states these teachers then draw from history and their knowledge or speculations of how people lived and viewed life back when the bible was written. We are convinced then that they must have some greater insight on what the bible is saying. We then step back from the bible because how can we know all that stuff to really understand the bible. We must then accept whatever that teacher says. But are people in the bible really so different from us? Do they not desire to be married and love their children? Do they not get angry when they are taken advantage of? Do they not wish to provide for themselves and their families? Do they not remember together with those dear to them what they have gone through and tell stories? Further, all cultures have a word for sunrise and sunset, the moon and stars, pain, which academically is called phenomenal language. When the Bible addresses life, history and the universe we have to understand that much of what we deal with in life, what we encounter or experience; states, processes, forms, observable behaviors and properties are given terms which are understood to communicate what is encountered through the senses. We must believe that we can identify such language which describes what would have been experienced by the senses together with the feelings and temptations common to man and come to a picture, in a cultural setting, from which we can understand what God is trying to say beyond that setting. What does scripture tell us?
That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9
Sure there are differences, but are they not merely the tools and agreed upon ways in which we will work together to meet these needs and desires? Was God’s Word for us written to them? Was the Bible written in their culture to their culture? Or was the Bible written from God’s Kingdom and His culture in their language to all of us? When I read Knowing God by J I Packer the following quote blew the door open on understanding God’s Word.
We feel that we are, so to speak, on the outside of the Bible world, looking in… The sense of remoteness is an illusion which springs from seeking the link between our situation and that of the various Bible characters in the wrong place… epoch, culture, etc… The link between them and us is not found at that level. The link is God Himself. For the God with whom they had to do is the same God with whom we have to do. – J. I. Packer, Knowing God
This is not to say that culture has no impact on understanding scripture. Yes, study the traditions, social structures, classes, national structures, trade, tools, etc. Knowing these will bring you further into the experience of the bible world so you can further feel and understand what the bible characters were going through. I believe knowledge of the cultures and original languages will add to your understanding but I do not believe it will ever turn the meaning around 180 degrees or even 90 degrees for that matter. It may skew it slightly but for all intents and purposes what God wants us to learn we can get from a good, honest translation of the bible. In the original language and the translation a verb is still a verb and a noun is still a noun they do not become something other-worldly. There are some variations in word forms but nothing that still can’t express the ideas God wants to communicate. When God created Adam he was able to name all the animals God brought before him. Scripture shows us that God created language. The Tower of Babel shows us that God confused language and Pentecost shows us that language is not a barrier to God’s communication.
Some christian authorities and academics in the areas of anthropology and linguistics contend for a progressive understanding of language. In their view language is merely semiotics or the conglomeration of symbols and sounds to which man in his culture has ascribed meaning. However we know from scripture that language itself was not an invention of man but a creative act of Almighty God bestowed upon man. Further we know that God chose to speak to man and to reveal Himself and His purposes in the world through the bible.
Though many have assumed that the Bible shares the worldview of the ancient orient, the creation accounts we have from that period are all distinct from the Bible. They are distinctly poetic and manifestly mythological. The biblical account, by contrast, is thoroughly narrative in form and decidedly non-mythological. (John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound p89)
… we must be careful to let neither our own view of the structure of the universe nor what we think to have been the view of ancient people to control our understanding of the biblical author’s description (John Sailhamer, The Pentatuch as Narrative)
The bible differs significantly from the other contemporary writings, writings from the same time period and surrounding regions. The Bible is written for all; it is more significant that it was written from God’s perspective than that it was textualized to ancient Israel. While we “realize that the inspired author … was allowed to use the only terms available to him in his language to describe natural phenomena, but was not allowed to offer anything more than the vaguest, most minimal descriptions of those phenomena, thereby leaving everything unsaid about their exact nature. … perfectly designed to allow that interpretation which accorded with actual fact…” (Holding, 1999) Therefore the most faithful reading comes from God’s world not their ancient world nor from our modern world. If we accept that meaning is granted by man then we may be carried about by the whims of culture, but if we believe that meaning was given by God then we can have faith that there exists something upon which we can stand.
In the next article I will address the post-modern and emergent role of community and how you may see it presented. I have kept from naming names and quoting anyone directly. The reason for this is I don’t want to focus on particular Christian leaders that are bringing post-modernism into the church but on the principles so that you might be able to identify the ideas that are a concern and not just look out for certain individuals.