Really? The cross-cultural Bible? Cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding are important themes for society in the 21st Century. Turn on the news, or watch a movie, and the issue of cultural understanding is likely to be brought up somewhere along the line. But, how we are supposed to actually become cross-cultural people? Should we move to a neighborhood that is multi-cultural? Should we listen to the music and read books by people who are not like us culturally? Should we feel ashamed of our own cultural backgrounds? Many people are left feeling confused and angry.
The Value of Cross-Cultural Understanding
My point is not to debate whether cross-cultural understanding is important. Obviously the ability to understand something about other cultures has many positive outcomes. Few people would disagree that mutual cultural understanding would produce greater harmony among in our divided society. The Bible itself looks forward to the day when people from every nation, tribe and language are united in the worship of their Creator (Revelation 7:9).
But how can we develop a cross-cultural outlook when it seems that forces are working to divide people into isolated, antagonistic groups? One way is to rediscover a cross-cultural resource that has always been available to us: the Bible. A moment’s thought will show that studying the Bible is a rich cross-cultural experience in itself.
Cross-Cultural Bible: The Old Testament
For example, reading Genesis requires us to accompany Abraham out of ancient Iraq and Syria into the land of Canaan. The study of Exodus involves the reader in a second-hand experience of Israel’s oppression in ancient Egypt, and the drama of their escape and freedom. The later portions of the Old Testament bring us in contact with the cultures of ancient Israel, Babylon, and Persia.
Cross-Cultural Bible: The New Testament
The New Testament also opens up cross-cultural experiences to the reader. In the pages of the Gospels, we visit the world of First Century Judaism as we walk with Jesus through the villages of Galilee. In the New Testament letters, we travel through time into Greco-Roman culture as we grapple with the problems of Christians in the early churches. It may be possible to read the Bible and ignore the cultural features, but to do so is to miss some of its most important teachings. In fact, we must understand at least some basic elements of the cultures of the Bible in order to correctly apply their lessons to our own times and our own lives.
A few examples will show what I mean. In the Old Testament book of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth, find themselves in a dangerous society. They appeal to Boaz for protection. Boaz then acts to provide protection and to bring them into a family unit. People who fail to understand the culture of ancient Israel might jump to the conclusion that this story is an example of ancient sexism. But understood in light of the times and the culture, it should be seen as a brave and generous act of compassion. Likewise, the provision for slavery in the Old Testament might be seen an oppressive practice, unless the reader remembers that ancient societies had no welfare system. When people fell into hard times and family could not assist, the way to avoid complete ruin and starvation was to enter into a limited period of servitude. Once the period ended, the person could make a fresh start.
In Luke chapter 1, Mary’s acceptance of the word of the announcement that she should conceive the Messiah —before her marriage to Joseph— is nothing short of heroic. That Mary and Joseph would go on to raise Jesus in a disapproving and gossipy village environment, so common in all times and cultures, should cause us to marvel at their faith and endurance. In the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, the command for women to cover their heads in public worship might be seen as insensitive in our own self-absorbed culture. But when the reader understands that the point of the command is the issue of public respectability. Head covering for women demonstrated respectability in that culture. Once the principle is grasped, appropriate application can be made for our own times.
True—people have often applied things taught in the Bible inappropriately. But that fact is not an argument against the Bible itself–only against failing to understand the cultures of the Bible and how its truths can be applied across cultures to our own situation. The point is that, among all of the other amazing things about the Bible, it is also a deeply cross-cultural experience. Time spent in its pages can cause a kind of cultural sensitivity desperately needed in our diverse and troubled times.