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April 21, 2013

interpreting across a cultural gap

Last year a friend asked me what I think our Book is saying when it tells us to refuse food that we know has been offered to idols. 

I told her that I think it means that we should refuse food that we know has been offered to idols. 

Common sense, right?

But if I had not yet been to Asia when she asked me that question, I don't know what my reply would have been. Asia taught me that believers still face that exact situation. The instruction is a practical one here, as are many of the passages that refer to idols, special days, special foods or not eating meat in front of a vegetarian friend, and much more. It has never been more obvious to me that our Holy Book is an Eastern book. It bears many more physical and cultural parallels to Asia than to the Americas...because it is an Asian book. 

But in the West, the turbans, camels, walled cities, servants, nose rings and arranged marriages of the East seem like distant fables, and we have a tendency to "spiritualize" any passage that we can't directly relate to. Understanding the culture into which our Holy Book was written is one of the most difficult parts of understanding what it has to say...and a part most of us sorely neglect. Too often we think that only the leaders of our gatherings, or radio preachers, are responsible to do cultural or background research. As for our own reading, too frequently we jump in and out of the text quickly, just looking for a quick application, without any time for background research. While sometimes we emerge unscathed, it doesn't mean that our method is wise. A careful and prayerful approach to the Word keeps us balanced and true...while haphazard hermeneutics could have us joining a fanatical cult in Texas. It is a worthwhile cause to take some time to understand how to understand the Word.

When I moved to Asia, one of the books I wished I could have brought was this book on interpretation. What follows is quoted from a chapter called "Bridging the Cultural Gap," pages 92-94. Zuck has helpful words about determining the relevance of certain passages to us:
"The following principles may be useful in determining which cultural practices and situations, commands, and precepts in the Bible are transferable to our culture and which ones are nontransferable. 

1. Some situations, commands, and principles are repeatable, continuous, or not revoked, and pertain to moral or theological subjects, and/or are repeated elsewhere in Scripture, and therefore are permanent and transferable to us. We need to ask if the Scriptures treat the situation, command, or principle as normative. Sometimes a reason is given for a command. Capital punishment is considered a permanent command because, after being given in Genesis 9:6, it is nowhere revoked, and the reason given in that verse is that man is made in God’s image. The command in Proverbs 3:5-6 to trust the Lord is certainly repeated, though stated in various ways throughout Scripture....

2. Some situations, commands, or principles pertain to an individual, non-repeatable circumstances, and/or non-moral or non-theological subjects, and/or have been revoked, and are therefore are not transferable to today. Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:11-13 to bring his cloak and scrolls is obviously limited to Paul’s situation. Nowhere are Christian fathers commanded to sacrifice their sons as Abraham was told to do (Gen. 22:1-19); that command was only for that occasion in the patriarch’s life....

3. Some situations or commands pertain to cultural settings that are only partially similar to ours and in which only the principles are transferable. Five times the New Testament refers to greeting others with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13: 12; 1 Thes. 5:26; 1 Peter 5: 14). Since that was the normal form of greeting in that day, and since that is not the normal form of greeting in our Western culture, it follows that this practice need not be carried over to today. Instead the principle behind it should be followed, namely, to express friendliness and love to others. In Latin America the same principle is expressed by a hug rather than a kiss, and in America a handshake is sometimes accompanied by a hug or a pat on the back....

 4. Some situations or commands pertain to cultural settings with no similarities but in which the principles are transferable. A sinful woman expressed her love to Jesus by pouring perfume from an alabaster jar on Jesus’ head (Matt. 26:7-8). There is obviously no way in which we can do this to Jesus now, but the principle holds that we can express our love to Him sacrificially..."
Zuck's well-organized book gives more examples of each of the above scenarios, as well as lots of other helpful guidelines for people who want to take their Book reading deeper. Every believer could be helped by skimming the book every few years to keep his reading and study on target. (Someone has scanned the whole book and put it online...copyright page and all! While they shouldn't have done that, it sure came in handy tonight for this girl whose beloved book is languishing in storage in Canada).

David Cooper is known for saying, "When the plain sense make common sense, seek no other sense." If we abide by this guideline in interpretation, 80% of our interpretation pitfalls will already be avoided. The example I gave of not eating food that has been offered to idols would probably fall into category 3 or 4 for most Westerners. But for Easterners it falls into category 1. We could try to draw elaborate modern-day Western parallels for idols, food, and offerings....but that would be going much farther than the text goes. Instead, we could draw a simple principle from it (à la 3 and 4) but concentrate on the obvious meaning based on the cultural context into which the Book was originally written.  

And that is common sense.


  1. This was really interesting for me to read...I want to check out that book now. I agree with you that we often just jump into the text and pull out an application too quickly.

    (And as someone who loves having shelves full of books and counts them almost as friends, I'm sorry most of yours are "languishing in storage in Canada"!)

  2. Steph, I doubly recommend Zuck's book. It's so practical and helpful for people who are wanting to have general principles for how to handle passages that are difficult to understand. And thanks for relating to my pain of being bookless. When I was packing I had to leave more and more books behind, my "to take" pile got smaller and smaller as weight limit reality set in :(. So thankful for digital and online resources but they can't quite take the place of physical books in my heart :)