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Is that an American virtue or a "biblical" virtue? (It's not always easy to tell)
Hermeneutics Huesday: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, chapter 8
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Imagine with me that it’s the early 2000’s, so brick-and-mortar Christian bookstores are still alive and well. You walk into one of those bookstores, head to the “Christian living” section, and begin to scan the titles. Here’s what you find:
· A LOT of books on leadership. So many, in fact, that you start to wonder if American evangelicals do in fact have a pope whose name is John Maxwell.
· A notable number of titles related to managing your finances, which, come to find out are mostly just handbooks on how to get rich without being a jerk.
· A smattering of volumes related to health and wellness that are eerily reminiscent of American diet culture, but with lots of prayer and Bible verses thrown in.
· A vast collection of books rousing the religious right from their political slumber with an enraged call to arms fueled by the book of Revelation and a firm belief in the supremacy of America in God’s plan for the world.
· Too many books on family and parenting to count. So many, in fact, that you wonder if Christians are even allowed to not get married or have kids.
If you move on from the Christian living section to the part of the bookstore devoted specifically to women, you will find all manner of books on modesty, sexual purity, submission, and how to be the perfect “Proverbs 31 woman.” There are, of course, zero books on leadership in this section.
This little snapshot of a typical Christian bookstore in America illustrates how influenced we are by our cultural norms related to virtues and vices. We desperately want to believe that our excessive interest in leadership, financial stewardship, health and wellness, political influence, and gender roles flows from our study of the Bible when in reality these interests are often culturally derived. We read the Bible through the lens of modern capitalism, American militarism, Victorian era gender norms, individualism, and a two-party democracy. We inherently value self-sufficiency and demonize dependence. We praise efficiency and resist rest. We promote the strong and ignore the weak. As Richards and O’Brien make painfully clear, these preferences are the air we breathe; written into our childhood folktales, our cultural proverbs (such as “cleanliness is next to godliness” or “God helps those who help themselves”), pop culture, and church subcultures. They’re so deeply entrenched into our thinking that we assume the biblical authors thought the same way. Why wouldn’t they? Aren’t our lists of virtues and vices universal?
We like to believe that our conception of what constitutes a vice or virtue comes from Scripture. And sometimes it does. But we must be aware that through repetition over time, our culture shapes our understanding of vice and virtue at the unconscious level. Eventually, these values go without being said. And the unconscious cultural lessons often influence the way we perceive certain behaviors in Scripture and can lead us to ignore clear biblical teaching on vice and virtue if it challenges a previously held cultural value. Sometimes our [nursery rhymes, folktales, and cultural proverbs] shout a lot louder than Jesus.
I’ll throw out a few examples of this from my own life. It was only recently that I was exposed to the idea of Christian non-violence (also known as Christian pacifism) which affirms that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. A few years ago, I would have read that, rolled my eyes, and chalked it up as something only hippie-dippy weirdos believe. I still have so many questions and feel too overwhelmed by the complexities of the issue to fully embrace a non-violence position, but at the very least I have become attuned to my personal biases toward American values such as the right to bear arms, the importance of military force, and my right to take a life if/when mine is ever in danger. If I’m reading the Bible well I have to admit that the words and actions of Jesus severely disrupt these assumptions, forcing me to wrestle with the true source of my views on how and when violence should be used.
Another area where I’m wrestling with the question of what’s cultural and what’s biblical is gender roles. My Christian subculture promoted a picture of virtuous masculinity and femininity in which men lead and women submit. Women seeking leadership positions are suspect. Women seeking pastoral leadership positions are in sin. Is this really what the Bible teaches, or are we reading our conservative cultural values and preferences into the text? Once again, I’m not ready to land on a position. I am, however, ready to identify the deeply entrenched assumptions that I bring with me to Scripture and to submit those assumptions to a sound hermeneutical method that forces me to truly reckon with the text it its own context.
One of the most significant reckonings with my own cultural assumptions related to virtue and vice was being on a pastor’s search committee of a Southern Baptist megachurch. The qualifications of a pastor are clearly laid out in Scripture. There’s no ambiguity here – qualified pastors are humble, gentle, kind, faithful, and sacrificial. The Bible specifically says that someone who is prone to anger, controlling or unwilling to maintain a posture of submission is not fit to be a pastor. Here’s the rub: What kind of person is needed to revitalize a declining megachurch that’s bleeding money and needs a total overall of most of its systems? Words like assertive, confident, bold, decisive, visionary, charismatic, captivating, determined come to mind. While these qualities are not necessarily antithetical to the portrait of a qualified pastor we find in the Bible, it's hard to deny that “assertive” and “humble” rarely describe the same person. I consistently found myself torn between wanting to find the type of person equipped to run the organization and the type of person equipped to shepherd people. If I’m honest, I consistently leaned toward the former. At times, the biblical qualifications became less relevant and my Americanized version of “good” leadership was often way louder than Scripture. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one on the committee. God did what God does and it worked out beautifully. But I’ll never forget that fierce internal conflict of really feeling like we needed the self-assured CEO type, even to the point of trying to convince myself that a hint of arrogance in such a candidate was normal and expected. Perhaps even a sign that he was well fit for the job. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the kind of power our unspoken cultural assumptions related to virtue and vice can have over us.
In order to prevent our cultural assumptions from distorting the Bible, Richards and O’Brien suggest that we begin with ourselves. Here’s their advice: “Start paying attention to your instinctive interpretations as you read biblical passages that have to do with vice or virtue. As you read, are you skipping over virtues or vices you don’t like? Are you considering some very serious and others almost optional? The way you answer these questions can help you uncover what vices and virtues you take for granted.” For example, if you can proudly make a compelling case for abstaining from alcohol, but you’re really annoyed when people bring up racial injustice, something’s off and it would be well worth your time to identify and unpack the assumptions behind that inconsistency. Richards and O’Brien also suggest being sensitive to what the biblical author is trying to emphasize. This means slowing down, reading repetitively, and possibly consulting a few commentaries. Their final suggestion is to make a habit of reading books written by Christians in different cultures and ages. I am admittedly bad at reading old books, but I’m very good at telling other people they should read them, so there you go. 😉
I have one more suggestion. A couple of years ago I read Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez and while I do not agree with every conclusion she draws, it was a powerful exercise in reckoning with how church subculture can obscure our view of what it really means to be Christian in this world. I think every white American evangelical should wrestle with the claims of this book, even if they end up disagreeing with those claims. At the very least, go read the description of the book on Amazon and see where the Spirit leads ya.
Next week we’ll cover chapter 9 of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, which is going to poke at our assumptions related to American idividualism, specifically our obsession with finding God’s will for meeeeee. It’s going to be a good one. I’ll meet you right here next Tuesday. Bye, friends!