Christianity that is culturally embedded, and doesn't know it
'it is not simply the Bible's context that we must understand. As many have pointed out, it is equally important that we understand and appreciate our own, and the way it predisposes us to highlight some things in the Bible and quietly ignore others'
– Wright, N.T. Scripture and the Authority of God. London: SPCK, 2005. p. 94
For a long time now I have been clear that I am a beast of culture, that 'no man is an island' and that this embeddedness colours the way I understand and interpret the world. However, and this is where the rubber hits the road, it is one thing to agree to this, yet quite another thing to really see it when it comes to our own religious beliefs and practices. Is this not true? While many of us may nod to the suggestion that culture affects how I know things, some of us have held this apart from any acknowledgement of such contamination in our reading of scripture. I suspect that this is particularly true for those who are sure that they 'simply believe the bible'.
However, many of us in evangelical churches have become more and more self-conscious of how our cultural embeddedness has influenced not just apparently theoretical categories like epistemology, but the grit and meat of what we mean when we say, in the light of scriptures, 'gospel', 'repentance', 'righteousness', 'eschatology', 'justice' and so on (I must admit that the word 'justice' made a guilty exit out of my theological back door into the gardens of those I labelled 'gifted that way', for more years than I care to remember).
Add to that our religious priorities and practices. Recently I visited a church that would claim to be 'bible believing'. However, the entire worship section of the service was filled solely with songs about Jesus and ME, how his death on a cross saved ME from hell … praise God, etc. Now, I for one will not suggest that what they were singing was entirely untrue. Indeed, thank God that Christ's death on the cross, and the wave of God's mercy that comes crashing over me through it and his resurrection, brings ME into a new relationship with my heavenly Father. The matter is about appropriate emphasis. Indeed, should it not disturb this 'bible believing' church that Jesus in the gospels, and Paul and his letters are rarely so individualistic? OUR Father, Give US, forgive US as We forgive, and lead US etc.
More importantly, given the thrust of Jesus proclamation of the 'kingdom of God', and the theological forces that shaped Paul's letters, should it not cause moment for pause and serious rethink when our entire focus, and the sum total of what we call 'church worship' and the purpose and benefits of the gospel is reduced to ME, a spiritual encounter with Jesus, and perhaps hell. For many, I could sound highly sacrilegious if I went on, but it is precisely at this point, I suggest, that we see the impact of our cultural embeddedness. But it takes seeing first. Our modernist individualism, colonialism, consumerism etc. has deeply coloured how we do and think things religion-related, and yes, even those of us who are sure we are just ' bible believing'!
However, when we can admit that our cultural embeddedness has sometimes distorted a healthy reading of scripture, we can start the exhilarating journey of rediscovering what 'gospel', 'kingdom of God', 'salvation' and the like signify in the teaching of Jesus and Paul etc. Much exciting research and study remains to be done. I pray that God will revive our vision of the breadth and beauty of his kingdom-call.
Theological addendum: 'Critical realism' suggests to me that the process of acknowledging my epistemological 'blinkeredness' is a helpful and illuminating aspect of my progress on Carson's 'hermeneutical spiral'. Nevertheless, I would resist the suggestion that my 'social construction of reality' is i) entirely arbitrary and ii) a bad thing (and why should it be if we are incarnational about this).