There is no reference to America in the Bible, though some prophecy buffs have tried hard to find one. I tried too, when I was a young Christian. Surely, I thought, the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world – the good guys, the nation of truth and justice – must come into the story somewhere. If nothing else, one of those apocalyptic images in the Book of Revelation must represent the good old U. S. of A.
I no longer hope to find any reference, direct or indirect, to the U.S. in the Bible, not even in the Revelation. I don’t expect to find the U.S. in the Bible, but I do expect to find the U.S. in me as I read the Bible.
Our culture conditions what we see (and, just as importantly, what we don’t see) when we read any text, including the Bible. That’s not just true of U.S. culture, but of any culture – German, Chinese, African, Latin – and of every culture. The more contact points a society has with Semitic culture during biblical times, the easier it will be for its members to understand the Bible. The fewer contact points, the more room there will be for misunderstanding – for reading cultural assumptions into the biblical text.
We all look through the lens of our cultural experiences and values when we read a text. Unless we are very careful (and even that is no guarantee) we will interject our assumptions into the text. The best we can do is remember our susceptibility to such misreadings, and so approach the text with humility and dependence on God.
Our cultural experiences and values provide the lens through which we read. My lens happens to be colored red, white and blue. The scriptural light is refracted and sometimes shaded by the lens through which I look; and I, for the most part, am not even aware of it.
Here’s an example. I read the Bible, as I suspect most Americans do, through a democracy refraction. I think of democracy as the highest form of government: everybody gets a vote, and every vote counts. So, when I come to something in Scripture that suggests I don’t get a vote – for example, that God will act according to his good pleasure whether I like it or not – I have trouble seeing it. My brain automatically corrects what seems to be a visual distortion. This makes it hard for me to understand (or even see) the Bible’s strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God.
Being an American born in the mid-twentieth century, I look through a lens that was ground to see progress. Because science and technology have steadily advanced, we Americans assume everything is advancing, including morals, values, and justice. We believe in progress. First century Bible cultures did not. We’d find it hard to believe in a God who wasn’t committed to our social advancement. People living in a biblical culture would find it hard to believe in one who was.
Americans also read the Bible through a lens ground by radical individualism, and we take it for granted that the first Bible readers wore the same lens. That lens magnifies God’s love for individuals, but it fails to bring his love for the church and the world into focus.
Our lens also distorts biblical passages related to honor and shame. In biblical cultures, shame was corporate. In our culture, it is individual. In biblical cultures, having a sense of shame was a healthy thing (as in, “Have you no shame?”). In our culture, it is an indicator of mental illness. Our culture is an innocence/guilt culture, as E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien point out in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. But the biblical writers lived in an honor/shame culture, which dramatically affected the way they wrote and read Scripture.
If all this is true, can we ever hope to understand the Bible? Yes, but we must read humbly, knowing there’s more there than we see. We must read collectively, with people from backgrounds other than our own. And we must read confidently, knowing that God will help us see what we need to see so that we can do what we ought to do.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/25/2017