The Effect of Culture on Doctrine and Scripture

What is culture? Does God have culture? The word is from the Latin cultura meaning cultivation, the tilling of the soil. Perhaps it is the essence of what is needed for survival. The poet T.S. Eliot wrote:

“Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living.” (T. S. Eliot, 1948. Pp. 294-295 in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Kermode, London, 1975, quoted here.)

He went on to say that people in society needed not just food, but special, distinctive, and proper cuisine. Culture, he noted, is primarily derived and passed on by the family, both nuclear and extended.

It is not difficult to see that culture influences doctrine and religion, and that religion in turn also influences culture. We don’t approach God or the Holy Scriptures in a vacuum. We read the Bible from the perspective of our own cultural background—our education, our language, our socialization, and our life experiences.

In a study in which 100 North American students were asked to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and then re-tell the story in their own words, only six students mentioned the famine that the Prodigal Son experience when he was away from home. When 50 Russian Orthodox students were asked to do the same, 42 (84%) mentioned the famine. This may be explained by the differing cultural backgrounds of the two groups: Famine is barely known in North American history, but seems to have been a recurrent event in Russian history, most recently during World War 2. Those famines are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Russian people.

In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien point out two cultural dangers to which we are readily susceptible:

  1. When we make our individual selves the center of our search for meaning, we are naturally drawn to passages in Scripture that we feel are immediately relevant to our lives, and we readily ignore or dismiss passages that we deem irrelevant to us.
  2. More importantly, to place oneself instead of God and His actions at the center of doctrine is to claim special spiritual privilege in God’s eyes. We easily fall into the trap of thinking: “This verse is about me (or my country or my time in history,” etc. Non-Western Christians can help remind us that Scripture is about them, too; but more importantly, it is about God and all Mankind.

Seventh Day Adventists worship in about 78,000 different churches and 70,000 different companies in 200 countries and about 800 languages, every week. I suspect something similar is true for many other churches. Can a bare-breasted Borneo woman attend her church bare-breasted? Can a naked Amazon jungle dweller attend his church naked? Can a New Guinean cannibal become an elder in his church? Can a newly converted Zulu with three wives become a pastor? Can an Ethiopian woman with a lip plate serve communion? Can a Bahraini with two wives take up the Offering? Can I teach Sabbath school class with a red dot on my forehead? Must I always wear a white short and a tie? Can I say the five daily prayers in English instead of Arabic? Can I smash coconuts at the foot of the altar?

What actually is Man’s doctrine, and what exactly is God’s? Does God even have a culture? At first glance, the following story about moving and touching the Ark of the Covenant would seem to have little to do with all of this. It gives is a picture of the Israelite culture at that time, in which God is symbolized for the Jewish nation and in reality also with the box—the Ark—God’s presence. For them, it was their God-in-a-box. The name Uzzah, which appears in the passage, means “strength.” The message seems to be that God cannot be managed with one’s own strength:

Now David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned above the cherubim. They placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart. So they brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark. Meanwhile, David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord with all kinds of instruments made of fir wood, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals.

But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. David became angry because of the Lord’s outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. So David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” And David was unwilling to move the ark of the Lord into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. (2 Samuel 6:1-10)

We wish to do with doctrine what the Israelites did with the Ark: To control God somehow with our own strength. This notion that God needs our assistance, that our culture is relevant to God, is fatal religion. It is our way of doing things. But placing ourselves and our thoughts and behaviors—in short, our culture—at the center of religion and doctrine is to engage in fatal religion. We are in God’s service, not He in ours. And yet, how can we know God if not through our culture? Is it possible to avoid falling into a cultural trap in religion? If so, how? Because otherwise we seem doomed to view God from a particular point of view.

Donald: It seems to me that the question “What is the culture of God?” might usefully be framed in terms of the question we discussed last week: “What are the differences between the doctrine of God and the doctrines of Man?” Most Seventh Day Adventists would probably agree with me that a strength of our church is the ability, wherever you go in the world, to step into a familiar culture and enjoy a Sabbath experience essentially the same as we would enjoy at home.

If we could uncouple the doctrine that is God’s from the doctrine that is the Church’s, perhaps the experience could be regional rather than global. It would shorten doctrinal debates, although there are doubtless some who would argue that doctrine concerning nakedness, polygamy, and lip plates are God’s doctrine.

A recent article in the Atlantic suggested that the Roman Catholic Church could put its current troubles behind it if it were to allow regional autonomy, which would take authority away from Rome. Another article takes issue with the prevalent assumption that Christianity is shrinking in America. According to the article, it is only corporate Christianity that is shrinking, while evangelical, congregational Christianity is growing.

David: Regional doctrines are all very well, but the fact is that doctrine must either trump culture or else be abandoned. You can’t ban pork and eat it. Not credibly, anyway. One of the two has to give. But in any case, doctrine is a cultural artifact and culture is inherently collective—communal. An individual in isolation from the the collective has no culture, only character. Culture cannot affect an individual’s relationship with God.

KB: In South Africa, culture gets in the way of relationships with God. Families are torn between church doctrines and tribal customs. For instance, tribal custom demands the shaving of the men’s heads, and the wearing of a black item of apparel by the women, in a family that suffers a bereavement. But these customs are frowned upon, or are perceived as being frowned upon, in some churches. Children of a church family are sometimes forbidden to visit with non-church relatives unchaperoned.

The early missionaries to Africa perhaps did not accept the notion that God accepts people as they are; that culture ought not to become a stumbling block to a relationship with Him, whether that relationship is nurtured individually or through the church. It gets harder for people to be who they are as they ascend the church hierarchy.

We should be able to debate these issues in our church. Clothing and food are cultural matters. They reflect the local environment and local resources. In rural South Africa, the principal food resource is the cow. We use every part of it. Nothing is thrown away. We eat the flesh and use the hide for clothing and other uses. When the missionary knocks on the door and invites the tribal African to live a new life in Christ, the missionary is really asking the visitee to give all of that up. I’m not sure that is what Christ wanted in return for dying for us. He did not lay down conditions about what to eat or wear.

Jay: It seems to me that doctrine is tied to the concept of obedience. Doctrine is a framework for how community can show obedience to God. There seems to be a definite call for us to obey, and we try to define what that is through doctrine.

Should obedience be hard or easy? We tend to think it is hard to do as God wants us to do, that it requires sacrifice and being different and doing things that “normal” people would not do. We have a tendency to set the doctrinal bar high, because reaching it demonstrates our commitment to God.

Mr. Singh: Doctrine of God, of Man, of salvation, of church are all fundamental beliefs.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

David: Did Paul not tell the early Christian evangelists to adopt the ways of the people they went to evangelize? If so, Christian churches are perverse in practicing the very opposite. Doctrines demanding obedience are church doctrines, Man’s doctrines. I do not see anything in the Bible to suggest that Christ in any way ordained or approved of the doctrines of the Christian church.

Robin: I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a missionary visiting a village of naked people. Where would one look?! It might mean nothing to the people who live that way, but is likely to be disturbing to the visitor to think that such people might attend church naked.

KB: But how would God react? I like the notion of obedience as a demonstration of our acceptance of Jesus as our Savior, and as a way of showing our respect to God. I may abandon my culture and adopt a new one as a step to getting closer to what God wants. Many Christian churches in Africa require a uniform to be worn in church, though the Adventist church is a liberal exception to that.

African critics accuse African Christians of abandoning their culture for a colonialist culture.

Donald: It seems disrespectful to expect another community, in which one is a guest and a minority, to share one’s beliefs and adopt one’s ways. Imagine visiting an Amish community here and telling them they are wrong! Why can’t we appreciate diversity? But first, we need to distinguish between Man’s doctrine and God’s doctrine.

Mr. Singh: If I dress as a Moslem I will be mistaken for a Moslem. In parts of India, that can be dangerous.

David: Robin and Mr. Singh both point to what is an obstacle between people and groups understanding one another and being able to worship together. I would feel just as embarrassed as Robin if I were to walk into a village and find everyone naked. But it would be a purely cultural reaction. It would not preclude my sharing with the villagers a spiritual understanding, to the extent even of being able to worship together with them.

I think it would help me, in that situation, to ask myself: “Who told me that they are naked?” God asked Adam and Eve “Who told you you were naked?” My reading of this is that nakedness is utterly irrelevant when it comes to a relationship with God. Our embarrassment at nakedness is Adam’s embarrassment, not God’s.

KB: People believe that they will be robed when they get to heaven, so they’ll be saved the embarrassment! Being embarrassed, uncomfortable, may be good insofar as it makes us examine the reasons underlying our discomfort. Doctrine does not have to be in conflict with culture.

The Adventist church does better in the cities than the rural areas of South Africa because city dwellers have already “Westernized” to a degree. The cultural change demanded of a villager is much more than is demanded of a city dweller. The church needs to change its approach to cultures, not just in Africa but in India and other areas as well.

Mr. Singh: In 1874 Adventists numbered 7,500, almost all of them in the northern United States. Today, it is in over 200 countries with an attendance in the tens of millions and more than a million new members joining every year. It is our responsibility to nurture that growth.

Donald: Today, though, the northeastern United States has very few Adventists. Does this mean that Adventism has lost its way? I remain concerned about what KB has told us. But even here, how well do we integrate with our local community? My neighbors are out mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings, watching me drive off in suit and tie.

Don: The difficulty of obedience is primarily cultural. It turns us away from our culture and towards a counter-culture. Jesus said “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” It is not hard. The doctrine of Jesus appeals to universal common sense rather than to culture: Love God, love your neighbor, be truthful, forgiving, etc. Every human being can understand and (by and large) agree with the inherent logic and ethic of this doctrine. But wearing a suit and tie in the African jungle does not make sense to everybody.

Chris: Culture is identified as worldly, and we are called not to be worldly. There is something more than culture involved when Christ talks about “coming out of the world.”

Don: Jesus was constantly at odds with the socio-religious culture of His time. Whether it was speaking to the woman at the well, or touching lepers, we see a pattern of counter-culturalism in the life of Jesus. And in the end, that is what got him martyred. He became so counter-cultural as to be dangerous.

David: I read his actions not as counter-cultural but as acultural. He was indifferent to it. His mission and His message were spiritual, or unworldly as Chris suggests. Culture may be a stumbling block to spirituality, but that’s life, as T.S. Eliot seems to be saying. We cannot avoid culture in our communal, worldly life but we can and must ignore it in our individual, spiritual life.

Donald: I think the problem Jesus had was with the authority of His time. He was a threat to authority.

Don: I do hope we can look forward to more open and frank discussion of diversity in the Christian church as a whole. We must understand that people who have a completely different lifestyle, education, and way of seeing the world, have a cultural and religious experience that is every bit as legitimate as ours. That is a hard thing to embrace, yet it is worthy of celebration. Until we do embrace and celebrate it, not much is likely to change.

KB: Jesus was a Jew. We are told to live as He lived. So maybe we could get some direction by looking at His life within the context of the culture of His time.

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