Let’s talk about a lazy take today. I don’t know how these things get started, but where I see it in its final form as parroted by folks in certain circles, I think it’s time to lay it gently to rest. Maybe give it a dadgum viking funeral – nudge it, burning, gently out to sea in an envelope nestled in an open copy of “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” or something.
I’m talking about this idea that a significant enough number of folks and denominations simply believe that the Bible can (and even should be) be changed according to whatever the culture wants.
Now yes, there’s certainly folks who cherry-pick whatever they want to justify what they want, but this attitude goes a lot farther than “those lib’ral denominations” and “that dang Joel Osteen”. You don’t have to look very far in any direction to find folks who have found a theological tradition that slides riiiiiight into the sweet spot where you got truth to proclaim, but it don’t upset your life and traditions too much, or dare I mention the bubble communities and churches where cultural oddities or time periods get baptized into the faith with as much solemnity as its young’uns are.
With that leveled playing field, what else is left? What do folks mean when they say that someone caved to culture? Who says they believe the Bible as their guide to faith and practice but then turns around and says that culture is the real authority? I could just call it a straw man and be done with it, but that’s not particularly helpful.
What I do hear from many folks I was trained to see as liberal bible rejectors is the idea that cultural context is vital to understanding the core principles the writers are trying to get at. I shouldn’t have to say that the documents that make up our Bible were not written to white 21st-century Americans: They were written to specific audiences, a long time ago, in lands far, far away. Therefore, it is absolutely vital to try to understand, as best as it is possible for us so far removed from the source, why the writers said what they did. Otherwise, we will simply attempt to recreate a long-gone culture, and we may or may not truly understand the deeper themes or overall meaning of the writings we have.
The logic there strikes me as similar to what KJV-Onlyists have settled upon as a solution to their trust issues: Latch onto an interpretation, a period, a Bible they deem as best or even Chosen, and remain there. The problem with this should stand out immediately: Our biases, whether cultural, experiential, or even genetic, not only can lead us to interpret given facts a certain way, but also they often choose for us (if we’re not careful) which facts we even see to begin with. Subsequently, the discoveries in recent history of earlier and/or more complete biblical manuscripts shook up the King James Only worldview, and some stuck at their guns against all evidence, while others “went lib’ral”, etc.
We live in an age where, for many of us, facts are a click or two away, or a trip to your local library or bookstore if you’re old-school. The minds of scholars and the histories of traditions are available for those who want them, yes, even those traditions and scholars who are not white Americans or 1600-1800’s Englishmen.
It is not Biblical faithfulness to stick to your guns in light of this, without going on the search yourself. You do not get points for standing your ground against new discovery on the basis of models formed before the addition of new information. You do not get to feel superior for rejecting what access to the wider experience of Christian faith traditions has meant for so many as they try to grow in their faith and compassion.
With that in mind, to judge others as caving to culture, or letting culture be the final authority is not only reductionist and a completely unhelpful argument even if true, but it is also blind to the lens we all see the world by.
Let’s look at a few practical examples before I go too long here on my rant.
When the writer talks about “modest apparel”, does he then spell it out for us how long our pants should be, whether we can wear shorts, or how much jewelry is too much (if allowed at all)?
Does he tell us what kind of kiss a “holy kiss” is, so we can be biblically faithful without making it sexual?
Does he define for us what exactly a “hymn and spiritual song” is?
Does he comprehensively define marriage for us, or when it begins? Or weddings? Or when a marriage is a marriage and not “fornication” (there’s no direct prohibition on multiple spouses, after all)?
Do any of the writers define what a “real man” should look like, or a “godly woman”, with practical examples?
I could go on for awhile, really. Hopefully the point is clear: What we have recorded for us is so often completely uninterested in defining what exactly we should look like for all time–the details–but that we live out the fruits of the Spirit as new creations no matter what culture or time period we’re born into. With that understanding, modesty is not about the amount of cloth or jewelry you’re wearing, but what makes you ostentatious in the surrounding culture for reasons that have nothing to do with your faith – a stumbling block, something for the world to associate with the name of Christ that might be offensive, like wearing a rebel flag shirt to a colored friend’s home, or flaunting a giant diamond necklace while running a soup kitchen. Or wearing a toe-to-neck dress to the beach – it’s a turn-off before you’ve even had a chance to demonstrate anything Christ-like.
I won’t bother going into the music question, or the holy kiss – should be easy enough to figure out what’s going on there. Marriage deserves a treatise of its own, and one I’m hardly qualified to make right now, but others who are qualified have spoken extensively on the subject. As far as real manhood and real womanhood, I’d challenge you to find any virtues or fruits of the Spirit that are gendered in Scripture, or any instruction that tells us what our “look” should be, and how we’re to be different from each other.
So what then – we might as well toss it all, right? If the Bible can’t tell us what to wear, what good is it? If I can’t provide chapter and verse to the hussy on pew #4 who’s skirt is too short for me, how shall we then live? If I can’t figure out from Paul what kinda beat is allowable in a church worship service, what’s the point of having a holy book? If I’m attracted to men, am I still allowed to greet the brethren with a holy kiss or is that right out?
Yes, I’m being silly, but so is the mindset that reacts so strongly to any hint at change as “caving to culture” or tossing out the Bible. It doesn’t take the source material you say you take so seriously, well, very seriously at all, because that’s not the book we were given. We have a collection of writings written to specific, living, breathing folks who aren’t us or in our culture, and the best we can do if we are to truly take it seriously is to go deeper than so-called plain readings in our language and figure out the guiding principles and themes–the truths that are truly timeless–and see how they play out where we are, and how other experiences have applied them. Framing the issue as a compromise with culture simply misses the weight of what we’re up against – it is not wrong, and I’d have to say it’s vital even, to always be aware of the lens you’re using for interpretation. Only then are we able to see our own blind spots and work towards true unity, and actually have something to say to the world we live in, with humility and self-awareness.