The Bible & Culture - Kyle Hanawalt
First in series: When the Bible came alive to me
We’re starting a new series here today, a series we have titled - When the Bible came alive to me.
We have a lot of different backgrounds represented here at this church when it comes to experiences with the Bible - some more, some less… mixed bags of positive and negative experience... For me personally, as someone who grew up going to church, and even more than that with my parents being pastors, I grew up with a complicated relationship with the Bible The Bible was always present as this thing that was super important and something to be treated with respect and reverence. When I would ask why questions growing up, like why is the world this way, why does that work that way, or why is this the way it has to be At home and at church, almost no why question could be answered without some quote or reference to the Bible Why do I have to go to school? Well because you need to lean things and become smarter so that you can have more opportunities and options for life. And as Jesus said in Luke 12:48 To those who have been given much, much is expected. And Kyle you have been given much, like the opportunity for education that not all people have. So, you need to make the most out of what has been given to you and go to school today. I have tons of memories like this from my youth of having a Bible message inserted into the answers of my questions. And as I got older, there was a clear expectation that I should be getting more and more familiar with the Bible for myself. And this was all wrapped up in a message that really first began with the reformation, but took hold in a new way with the rise of evangelicalism in the last 50-100 years. This message, I think could be summed up as More Bible, More Better. Like any exposure to the Bible is Good exposure to the Bible And I remember having this narrative deeply embedded into my mind. And when I was 18 I spent a year in Australia working with a church there.
And something strange happened, these people, these Christians started to interpret and read meaning in the Bible that was different than the interpretations and meanings that I had understood growing up. This blew my mind, and at the time I remember thinking, how could these people be so wrong in their interpretations, because, of course, how I had grown up reading it was the clear correct way to do so, How on earth did these people get it so wrong, and how can I help them see the error of their ways. This all lead to me deciding to read the whole Bible, cover to cover, for the first time in my life. It’s not unusual that I hadn’t read the whole thing even spending years going to church According to a recent lifeway poll, only 11% of church goers claim they have read the whole Bible. So I decided to not just skip to the parts I know, or the parts I am looking for, but read it in its entirety.
And my thought process going into this was that, this was going to totally clear things up for me. After reading the whole Bible, I would of course understand it all, And thus know how to correct this Australian church The problem was that was not exactly what happened. As I began to read the whole Bible. I found myself deeply confused and perplexed.
It immediately became clear that 96% of the teachings and sermons I had heard were on only 4% of the Bible. I got through the whole Bible, and I felt like my head was spinning.
I felt like I was seeing contradictions between what it was saying in different places, Like in one place Paul says that rulers and leaders are put in place by God, so we must respect them, but in in another place Isaiah is saying that all these rulers are Evil and God is against them and will rise up and crush them. Or I find myself going over and over passages that describe violence and genocide and conquest happening at the hands of God’s chosen people, and then looking at Jesus saying - love your enemy. And then I couldn’t help but look at all of the terrible things that have happened in our world, things currently happening in our world in God’s name using Bible passages to excuse their actions. And it got me wondering maybe it’s not More Bible, More better, maybe it’s More Bible, More problems. Because the truth is, more bible, without context, background, other wise people to bounce ideas off of, and healthy amount of humility. Without those things, I would argue that history would show us that More Bible has not always been better. (SLIDE) But in the years since then, what I have actually come to find is that there is a middle ground (SLIDE) between more bible, more better and more bible, more problems - a middle ground of thoughtful, informed engagement of the Bible that allows it to come alive. And that middle ground is where we want to spend our time in this series. Vince and I want to share the stories, the concepts, the particular moments when the Bible came alive to us.
When the Bible became this wonderful tool that it is to us today The tool that has helped us better connect with God and better connect with community, This tool that has helped us grow and be challenged, and this tool to broaden our worldview
And so for today’s example of something that made the Bible come alive to me, I want to share something I learned in my Undergrad and Seminary study of culture and theology.
It’s a few “cultural paradigms” that can be seen as spectrums. And I want to draw special attention to where our modern US culture falls and where the Ancient Near Eastern cultures of the Biblical writers would fall.
The first is Power Distance -
On one side, you would have low power distance. This is what modern American culture is. This is a more egalitarian culture. Kind of a democratic management style. Power is shared and people can move up and down power structures freely. Subordinates are encouraged to take initiative and are not expected to be overly deferential. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with managers or bosses. Tends to be fairly informaral.
On the other end you have high power distance. This is what the ANE culture of the Bible was. This tends to be more hierarchical, authoritarian. Power is held in one group, or person. Those that are in power are in power, if you are not in power, you don’t question it, you just defer. Tends to be very formalized.
One small example of this is when I was teaching english in Korea. So let’s say a student gets in trouble, but there is a dispute between the story the teacher tells and the story the student tells. In America, a low power distance culture, it is not uncommon for the parent to take the student’s side, or at the very least, weigh the student’s story evenly against the teachers.
In Korea, a high power distance culture, there is no discussion, no question. The teacher is the authority, and so the student’s version of events just doesn’t matter. The parent would automatically defer to the teacher. Or Just a week ago I was talking to a teenager who has pretty much no church or Christian cultural experience. And we were talking about culture and the way that women are treated, particularly in light of the events of the last year. And she, knowing I was a pastor, asked me about some comments she had heard a religious person say - that essentially amounted to the fact that Women were inferior to men. And this religious friend had quoted Paul from the Bible to support his argument. My response was that I thought read in context, in that culture - a Hierarchical / High Power Distance culture, that Paul’s words would have actually been considered as radically feminist. The fact that Paul told men to honor and respect these women and he addressed the women just as he addressed the men. In that culture - that would have been feminist. And before I said more. This teenage girl just looked at me and said - Well then in our culture, Women should at the very least be treated as equals.
I was like… Yeah, seems to me that if you are willing to challenge power that much in a high power distance culture, it should be challenged at least as much in our low power distance culture.
The next Paradigm is Locus of Control -
On one end you have internal locus of control. This is what America is - Who controls my fate? I do. There are few things in life that can’t be changed. Where there is a will there's a way. Life is what you make of it. Find happiness by seizing it.
This is opposed to an external locus of control. This is what the ANE culture was - Where I have little control over what happens to me. I can’t do much to change my lot in life, my success or lack thereof, is due to good or bad fortune. Life happens to you. Find happiness by coming to terms with your circumstance.
One thing to note about culture that I think Locus of Control particularly highlights, is that culture is not made in a vacuum, it evolves in context. And it is notable that countries that have a history of prosperity tend to have a culture with more of a internal locus of control, whereas countries that have a history of poverty and suffering tend to have cultures of a external locus of control.
a study that was done a little while back that took a whole bunch of Americans and a whole bunch of Russians and had them read the parable of the Prodigal son. Then they were asked to share what they thought it meant.
The story if you are not familiar - A son asks for his inheritance before his father dies, his dad gives it to him. Then Quoting from Luke 15 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. He then is lovingly welcomed back home by his father, much to his brothers dismay.
So, when people reported back their understanding of the story, there was one pretty distinct difference that they saw in the American responses and the Russian responses.
Only 6% of the Americans mentioned the famine at all. Whereas 84% of the Russian students mentioned the famine as the primary reason that Prodigal son was forced to return home. The internal locus of control Americans saw this parable as a critique of the sons “wild living” and personal moral failing, thus he brought about his own suffering. Thankfully though, the loving father welcomed him home forgiving him. The external locus of control Russians - who come from a country that suffered a massive famine in the middle of the last century. Pointed to the fact that the son would have been fine, even with squandering his wealth, if there had not a famine at the same time. Thus, the point of the parable to the Russians was not exclusively about personal morality and the grace of God, as it was for the Americans, the point was about the protection and safety that God offers when our own errors or the external forces of the world put us in need.
The next paradigm is concept of self -
On one end you have Individualist, which I also put as guilt / innocence, because individualist and a focus on guilt v innocence are almost always linked. This is what America is- This is a focus on the self, over the cooperate. Children are taught that they should learn how to be independent, take care of themselves. Freedom is held as the highest value.
On the other end you have collectivist - Which I also put as Honor / shame. This is what the ANE culture was. You are only as good as the group you are part of. Group harmony is the highest value. Children are taught to depend on others and make sure others can depend on you. Group recognition is valued over personal. The biggest thing I think about here is the concept of sin or wrongdoing. In an individualist culture there is an emphasis on personal morality. Are you guilty or innocent? In a collectivist culture - it is a focus on group harmony. It isn’t about guilty or not, it is about what effect you are having on the group. You might be familiar with how much of the OT is made up of purity/cleanliness laws for the early Ancient Israelites -- on guilt / innocence terms, they seem ridiculous. Seen on collectivist terms, how do these affect the harmony of this group as wandering nomads? it makes a lot more sense.
The last one I want to touch on is value orientation -
On one side you have Universalist. Which is what America is - What is right is right, and it is always right and applies across the board. Fair means treating everyone the same and holding everyone to the same standards.
On the other side you have Particularists. - This is what the ANE culture was. What is right is based on circumstance and situation. What is right at one point or one context could be wrong in another. Fair means treating everyone uniquely based on relationship and context.
So, let’s say you own a small business and you are looking to hire someone.
You have two applicants -
One is a super qualified person who would clearly be excellent at the job.
The other applicant is your cousin, who has no qualifications or experience whatsoever
A universalist would say - of course you hire the qualified person. They meet the requirements, they are a better candidate, clearly that is the right decision. To do otherwise would just be nepotism. Which we obviously frown upon.
A Particularist would say - of course you hire your cousin. He is family. Who cares if this other person is more qualified, who is he to you? In this context, hiring your cousin would be right, and hiring the qualified man would be a moral wrong.
When it comes to experiencing the Bible as helpful, we Americans especially run into problems with this cultural paradigm.
We ask: If the Bible is meant to be an ultimate authority, an everlasting tool, why didn’t God have the Bible written it in a way that could be clearly and timelessly understood.
First off - Only universalists would ask a question like that.
You see how universalist that question it, Needing “right” to be right always and for all time
Particularists don’t have a problem with the Bible not being clear, timeless truths.
To them, it’s not possible to communicate without context. Context is essential for any or all communication.
And honestly, I think we Universalists are slowly realizing that too.
Have you ever Watched a sitcom from the 90s?
I always walk away and think - man that was pretty sexist and racist.
That shows you how hard it is speak timelessly over a cultural change of just 20 years.
Let alone over 1000s of years.
To me, the only way to decipher a timeless truth is to ask “what did this mean to them then?”, and then ask “what would an equivalent be for us today?”
Now I am sure you noticed, but in every single paradigm, modern American culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum than the Bible’s ANE culture.
This is incredibly important, because it tends to mean one of two results: By not considering culture, religious people can tend to totally misunderstand things from the Bible, but then defend the misunderstandings they’ve come to with empty reasons like: Well God makes the rules, not me. OR By not considering culture, non-religious people can tend to just dismiss the Bible altogether as antiquated or worthless But neither of these are reasonable places to go The reasonable place is a middle ground Where we neither throw out the Bible, nor read it without thinking critically about culture and context and history That’s what we’re about here at BLV That’s what we hope this series of talks this summer gives you tastes of Because, the Bible coming alive to us has been a gift, and we think it will be to you too It’s a gift in the way it pulls us out of our narrow, 21st century American perspective It’s a gift in the way it places each of our individual pursuits of life and God in the context of a much larger story It’s a gift in the way it leads us into actual interaction with God. Because that is above all why the Bible is worth considering - it is an incredible tool for leading us into interaction and relationship with the loving God Jesus showed humanity
And that is why today I would love to encourage you to pray for God to help you discover the Bible in a new way. That if your background has taught you to tend toward that “well God makes the rules, not me” pitfall, you don’t just explain away a red flag in you, but rather God emboldens you to humbly ask critical questions of the Bible. Or, alternatively, if your background has taught you to tend toward that “dismissing the Bible” pitfall, that God makes you feel safe enough to humbly ask: what am I missing here?
And to that end I would like to ask you stand with me and pray
“ I’m broken. I’m lost. I don’t have it all put together. My life isn’t as ‘likeable’ as my Facebook posts let on. I need help. I need help that I cannot give myself. I need help because I cannot do this alone, nor should I. I’ve grown more aware recently of my responses to stressful situations. I’m ashamed and scared by these behaviors and thoughts and decided to go deeper into prayer for clarity growth and healing. I have not been transparent with my family or friends about this part of my life in fear of judgement and also having to admit failure, or weakness and ask for help. Twice this week I felt compelled to ask for help -which I would had previously avoided-and was only met with love and support. It helped to diminish an irrational fear that I was alone, that I would be judged harshly or pitied for feeling lost at this point in my life. It helped to remind me that I am loved by my family and friends and by Jesus unconditionally; which is something that often loses light for me when faced with stress. I’m on a path to healing that I would not otherwise have been able to give myself without God’s Love and work through the people around me to shine His light and guide me back to Him. “