Thursday, February 08, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Reading the Bible through a Cultural Filter

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Two: How to Deal with the Bible
(Section Two: Reading the Bible through a Cultural Filter)

          Another strategy for limiting the Bible’s potential to destroy our misery is to read the Bible through a series of filters. Most of us already do this anyway. We have cultural filters, political filters, and even our own customized filters based on individual preferences. All of these filters help us to focus on the things we like, to ignore the things we don’t, or to convince ourselves that the Bible is saying things that we already agree with.
            First up: cultural filters. The truth is, you’re already reading the Bible through a cultural filter. You really don’t need my advice. In fact, you might be better off skipping this section entirely, because it likely has things in it that you may not have thought about before, and thinking about them might prove to be a dangerously broadening experience. But, for the sake of being thorough, here we go.
            If you’re an American Christian reading this book, you might be surprised to know that the vast majority of the world doesn’t think like you do. (But who really cares about the rest of the world, right?) The United States, along with other Western nations, are a wide mix of diverse cultures, but there are some overarching themes that bind us together. We’ll just touch on one here today: American culture is individualistic.
When I say that, I don’t just mean that all Americans are selfish materialists, but that our mental life is framed in individualistic terms. We view our lives from the vantage-point of a personal worldview in which I, myself, am the absolute center of my own identity. My decisions are my own, and my life is my own. We live by Shakespeare’s marvelously unbiblical maxim: “To thine own self be true.”
            Sounds pretty ordinary, right? Of course everybody sees everything from the vantage-point of their own personal identity. What other possible vantage-point could there be?
            Well, here’s the wacky thing: the majority of cultures throughout the world’s history have favored a communal perspective on identity, decision-making, and life in general—not an individualistic one. That is, most cultures in the world are not seeking to follow the advice of being true to yourself; rather, they are seeking to be true to their group identity. Their understanding of their identity begins with the group of which they’re a part, and not with their own name, occupation, and set of interests: they see themselves as part of their family, clan, tribe, or nation. And that’s their primary lens for viewing the world.
            Okay, so why does this dry bit of anthropology matter? Because the cultures of the biblical world were largely driven by a communal perspective, not an individualistic perspective. This underlying difference between our culture and the culture of the Bible is a tremendous asset to your Christian misery, because it means that you will be perpetually misunderstanding and misapplying the Scriptures.
            Take one particular example: in Ephesians 3:17b-19, the Apostle Paul says, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
            Great verses! It’s pretty easy to read these and get all the warm and fuzzy feelings of knowing that I, in my personal relationship with God, can be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Wow!
The only problem is, that’s not exactly what these verses are saying. Paul might not disagree with an individualized application, but that’s not his main point here. His point (as it is throughout Ephesians) is that the grace, power, and plan of God are made manifest in the community of the church, and that it is in our communal relationship with God that we can grasp how wide and long and high and deep his love is. Our primary identity, here as in most places in Scripture, is not “me-and God,” it’s “us and God.” It’s not “I am a Christian,” it’s “We are the Body of Christ.”
The verses immediately around the passage I quoted (and really, the entirety of Ephesians) make it absolutely clear that Paul has in mind not individual Christians and their private devotional experiences, but the whole towering and triumphant life of the church considered in its unified, communal splendor. Even within the verses above, there was a hint of this meaning, which, if you’re a good American individualist, you probably just glossed over: “together with all the Lord’s holy people.” That doesn’t just mean that you personally get to know God’s love, and, oh, as an afterthought, all the other Christians get to know it too, each in their own private devotional lives. It means that it is within the context of our togetherness that we may deeply know the full depth of God’s love for us.
            Do you see why this matters now? Our individualistic culture helps to blind us to the absolute necessity of Christian community in our spiritual lives. (The English language helps out, too, by not indicating a difference between plural and singular “you” in some places where that distinction is important.) Thanks to our individualism, we can remain blissfully ignorant of the call to connect deeply with other Christians. We can imagine that we’re free to go it on our own, to develop a personal relationship with God that is unconnected to our commitment to a local church. That’s an idea that would have made the Apostle Paul start shooting off angry letters in ALL CAPS (Gal. 6:11).
We’re really off-base from New Testament Christianity in thinking that Christianity is about “me and God” and that deep connections with a church are a peripheral concern. Almost nothing could be further from the actual message of the Bible. The church is absolutely central to God’s work here and now, including God’s work in my own heart, and there’s no getting away from that. Unless, that is, you can read the Bible without coming to that realization at all.
            So it’s a marvelous thing that our culture fits us with such a nice set of blinders, so that we don’t even have to think about such things. (And, along those lines, I’d recommend that you forget these last few pages.) Then you can just go about your Christian life of individualistic “me and God” spirituality, and that will effectively cut you off from the powerful experience of knowing his love in the context of his church. The result, of course, is what we’ve wanted all along: the fashionable misery that’s all the rage these days.