By Hannah Macauley-Gierhart

Culture can be a hedgy beast. I picture it prickling when it senses danger anywhere; a shutting down of borders, a strong sense of threat when someone starts to pull at the elastic of its boundaries. I can see it particularly when Christian culture feels threatened: those immersed set their jaws, narrow their eyes, and hold their bodies akimbo as they prepare to stand ground. It’s a territorial thing, you see. It’s a this-is-our-staked-ground-and-we’re-not-budging-from-the-truth kind of thinking. I know it because I’ve been a gatekeeper of that culture once upon a time. I’ve felt the outrage when Christian freedoms are attacked, the primal instinct to fight for truth, or whatever I thought it was back in those days. On the other side of this borderline, the air feels freer. I can stretch my arms and not worry I’ll rub up against indignation, I can ask questions and not feel the antagonism that comes against non-conformity.

And what I’m learning from this side of the wall is that culture and the bible aren’t always conflated. Where I’d dig my heels in the dirt and worry about Christianity being misconstrued, now I realise that it’s often Christians who are the misconstrue-ers. We hold the old ways sacred, never wondering where they came from, imposing our own views of the world on a bible that often doesn’t agree with us.

Will asked me to be a part of a panel for a Sunday night church service once, centred on the premise of ‘dangerous ideas.’ The idea could be anything to do with Christianity, and he assured me that the more dangerous, the better. It had me nervous, those lack of parameters, because although I could probably spout twenty dangerous ideas fairly easily, I can still get nervous saying them in Christian settings. I’ve been called super liberal / borderline heretical many a time, and so I knew the sting of voicing genuine ideas only to be told to keep those thoughts a bit more quiet. The ideas that night from the panel were broad: the complexity of individualism and the resulting need for intentional unity, the different interpretations of leadership and what it actually boils down to, and me… whose controversial thought was that we need to reassess what is biblical and what is actually culture.

I talked about how my raging feminism felt incompatible with a bible that is often cited to justify misogyny and repression. How often the social issues Christians vocalise opposition to are based on tradition rather than explicit scriptures, how we need to be brave in unpacking these aspects of our religiosity that may be the very pharisaical nonsense the bible actually rails against. I had a few notes, but I verged off them freely. What tumbled out was years of pondering how we’ve come to be known for the opposite of the Jesus-figure who centres our faith. In recent years, in Australia at least, Christians have widely come to be known as intolerant and exclusive, and I reckon it’s got a lot to do with this disconnection between Jesus and the culture we’ve built around Him. 

I had five minutes, and I ranted. It was a bubbling, passionate diatribe including the following reflection from Rachel Held Evans: 

‘If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an out-dated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not “what does it say?”, but “what am I looking for?” I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.’

And here’s the rub: we often make the bible in our own image. Our confirmation biases tells us that our interpretations are true because we feel comfortable with them and they reinforce our values, choices, and behaviours. This way of forging a religion around our agenda is dangerous as it becomes a way to excuse exclusion, hate those Jesus calls us to love, and become pretty sanctimonious in our white-washed sepulchres.

Jim Palmer put it well:

‘People will often say, “My authority is the Bible.” It would be more accurate for them to say, “My authority is what they told me at church the Bible means.” One’s theological understandings are shaped and formed by their religious sub-culture or tradition. Throughout history there have been varying Christian views on even the most fundamental doctrines associated with the Christian faith such as the divinity of Jesus, existence of hell, God as a supreme being, the doctrine of original sin, and the Trinity. The idea that there is an enduring core theology that is accepted as “Christian” is not true. What is “Biblical Christianity” to one person is not to another.’

I have my own biases; it’s impossible to be human without them. What is important is that I am aware of these subjective ways of viewing the bible and the world and to honestly ask is it the bible or is it culture? I’m often surprised by the answer.

Questions to chat to someone about/chew over:

  1. If you read the bible, what are you looking for?
  2. What biases do you bring?
  3. Would being radically honest about these questions change anything in your approach to faith, tradition and progress?

1 Comment on “The Entanglement of Bible and Culture

  1. Definitely agree with the premise of conflation of Bible and culture.
    A problem with the conclusion is highlighted- “what then is the Truth?”. The inference is that there will always be groups of Christians disagreeing with other groups of Christians… until Jesus returns. (Or maybe some have views on “Jesus’ return” that precludes that possibility! 😄)
    So I guess all we can do is to call on each other to be willing to consider the question- “how is my cultural bias informing my theology?”.

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