Why Culture is Super Important to Understanding Biblical Interpretation

“We just follow the Bible.”

If you’ve attended pretty much any church in our present day, you’ve probably heard some variant of those words. Often from well intentioned people, the idea is that the Bible is an “inspired” set of text that helps us to live our lives in an upright and moral manner. It’s a view I’m familiar with because it’s one I also held up until semi-recently. It’s a view that jives well with the underbelly of the Christian tradition. I get it.

There’s an underlying assumption here that, interestingly, modern studies have helped to dispel. That assumption is, you can do a one-for-one translation of the Bible into new languages and be able to understand the Bible in that new language with no problem. It’s not a bad assumption because it is fairly true. Can you read it? Sure! But can you really understand it?

Let’s demonstrate this out. The video below contains a review for an older variant of Google’s Pixel Buds. The Pixel Buds are basically supposed to be Apple’s AirPods competitor, except Google touted this feature in the Pixel Buds that enabled the wearer to get a live translation of whomever is speaking a different language right in front of them. (This is powered by Google Translate, naturally.) It’s an interesting prospect if it works, so The Verge puts that to the test in their review. They invite several people who natively speak different languages to text how well this translation feature works.

Setting aside the fact that it didn’t get translation right 100% of the time, the interesting thing to me is that even when the words themselves were correct, the cultural context was wrong. The people in the video went as far to say that it sounded as if you were being “a rude five year old.” This begins to display to us then that one-for-one translation of words misses translation of context.

Remember, those Pixel Buds are a modern day product doing translation for modern day languages. I actually do think Google Translate will get better by altering its algorithm to be more culturally sensitive. It’ll be able to do that more easily because modern day language speakers — like the ones in the video above — can provide active feedback in making that translation software better.

But we don’t have that luxury with the Bible. The biblical authors, biblical characters, and everybody who lived at that time are, well… dead. They can’t speak for themselves and tell us if we got the translation necessarily correct or if we’re totally off base.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our way of understanding the Bible is filtered through a strong cultural lens. That cultural lens is one that has evolved a lot over time. One of my favorite books is Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley. That book is a HIKE in terms of length, but it does a great job at explaining to the average reader — like me — how Christian history has evolved throughout history since the time of the Bible. Shelley steers clear of saying, “And this is why we believe [this modern Christian idea]…” but I found that to be pretty self-evident while reading. Almost every understanding we have of the Bible today has come from a particular cultural point in time, NOT from the biblical source itself.

And here’s the other interesting thing… even the biblical characters themselves misunderstood each other! Think about the accounts in the New Testament where Jesus frequently challenged groups like the Pharisees or Sadduccees. These people were supposed to be “experts in the Law” (the “Law” here being Torah), yet Jesus frequently made comments basically telling these experts that they were missing the point originally intended.

(IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: That last paragraph sounds as if I’m disparaging Jewish people. Even today, Christian churches have given Jews sort of a bad wrap for “not getting it” when Jesus came around. I think this is a gross implication as I see the Jewish tradition as being very rich and frankly more “correct” than most modern churches.)

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind how this applies even today, we can trace a few modern “biblical understandings” to things that have happened in our direct lifetime. For example, it’s pretty commonplace to believe that God will come back and Rapture his people prior to a time of an apocalyptic end of the world. (This view is collectively known as “premillennial eschatology.”) Where do you think the popularity of this view came from? In 50 years, I think people will be surprised to learn that that view came from the popularity of the fiction book series by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins: Left Behind.

If the Bible is being re-interpreted and re-understood even as recent as 1990 with that Left Behind example, what makes you think that biblical re-interpretation isn’t going to keep happening? I mean, if you want an even more recent example, consider the whole LGBT movement. Whereas Western culture in general has already accepted and embraced that culture, the Christian church is just now starting to accept monogamous LGBT relationships as fine in “God’s eyes.” It might surprise you to learn that people actively used the Bible in the 1960s to support racial segregation. 50 years later, most Christians are baffled people ever interpreted the Bible that way. I’m calling it here now: the church in 50–100 years probably will feel that same baffled feeling about LGBT issues.

(Another side note: The biblical case against LGBT matters is actually much looser than you think it is. It’s far too long to explain why in this post, so if you want to learn more about that topic, I’d encourage you check out either God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines or Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-Vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee. Both those books can provide FAR better insight on the topic than I ever could.)

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, ALL Christians practice what podcasts hosts Pete Enns and Jared Byas (The Bible for Normal People) call adjective theology. You might have heard of terms like feminist theology or African-American theology to more specifically describe those respective ways in which people place a cultural lens on top of biblical interpretation. The mistake many people make is thinking that they practice an “adjective-less” theology. No, your interpretation — although more obscure than the aforementioned ones — is still rooted through a cultural lens. Call it “white evangelical” theology, if you will.

As we come to wrap up this post, I want to address a concern you might have at this point… This might sound as if I’m discounting the Bible and the Christian faith tradition as if they are worthless, and that understanding is wrong. I think there is a lot of richness in studying the Bible despite the cultural baggage we’ve placed on it throughout history. There’s a lot of practical goodness in here, so I’m not at all calling for tossing out the Bible. In fact, I love the Bible!

But one final thought… We spend a lot of time trying to get beyond the cultural re-interpretations to get at the truth behind the Bible, but the Bible itself is really just one interpretation of life as a whole. That probably sounds heretical, but just as we privilege certain cultural interpretations of the Bible, we’re equally privileging the Bible over other faith / science texts. Again, this isn’t at all to say the Bible isn’t a valuable text, but if we really want to get at truth, we have no choice but to at least explore areas beyond the boundaries of the Bible.

Alrighty, that’s a good stopping point. If you want to learn more about biblical interpretation, I definitely recommend that aforementioned podcast The Bible for Normal People. Pete and Jared have great conversations with folks from all sorts of traditions, and they’re accessible enough that anybody can glean value from their chats. Although I may be a *tiny bit* biased since I’m a proud member of their Producer’s Group. 😃

Machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Organizational Leadership, PMP, CSM