The Lenses We Wear When We Read the Bible

In the movie, “Titanic,” a mother and her teenage daughter Rose, played by Kate Winslet, are crossing the Atlantic with Rose’s fiancé. He is from the same social class as she, but he is rich while her family has squandered its wealth and is poised on the edge of poverty. She must marry the rich boor to save her family from shame.

Rose detests the idea of being hitched to this pompous snob and resolves to throw herself into the ocean and end it all. She is saved from this fate by a scallywag kid named Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is only on the ship because he won tickets for a third-class cabin in a poker game. As one would expect, the two young people fall in love.

I have never watched, and do not intend to watch Titanic, even though Roger Ebert hailed it as a “flawlessly crafted … spellbinding” film. I know how it ends—and that it takes over three hours to get there. However, I recently read a book that used the plot of this movie to illustrate differences between traditional and modern societies, and I was intrigued.

In “When the Church Was a Family,” Joseph Hellerman claims that if first century viewers watched “Titanic,” they would react differently to Rose’s plight than present-day Western viewers. Hellerman writes: “People in the ancient world automatically assumed that the groups to which they belonged took priority over their lives as individuals.”

Viewers from the first century would not have rooted for Rose and Jack. They would, in fact, have despised her for her selfishness. But in our time, storytellers like James Cameron know that their audience wants to believe that romantic love trumps other commitments.

This is so much the case that Hollywood keeps churning out movies in which bored men and women abandon their families for a sexual fling or for sexual experimentation and viewers sympathize with the adulterers. This idea was present in other times – consider the Pre-Raphaelite poet William Morris’s line, “Love is enough” – but it is orthodoxy now. In our day, people can repeat the trite slogan, “Love is love,” and actually believe they have said something profoundly important.

A first century viewer would think it a shame that Rose must marry such an arrogant snob, but would expect her to do so nonetheless. She is part of a family. Her first duty is to them, not to herself and certainly not to “love.” To allow her family to be brought into shame, when she has the power to prevent it, would be disgraceful. What kind of a daughter would do such a thing?

This group-first mindset is a characteristic trait of traditional societies but is largely absent from the American way of thinking. We expect our children to leave the family when they reach young adulthood and go out to make their fortune. We demand a raise, even when the company can’t afford it—and if we don’t get it, we’ll go elsewhere. We are individualists to the core.

This difference between first and twenty-first century ways of thinking comes into play when we interpret ancient texts like the Bible, which was written in a group-first, traditional society. If we read these texts without an awareness of the group-first mindset, we are bound to miss things in the text.

Examples of this can be found in biblical passages dealing with salvation. We tend to read them through a mono-focal, individualist lens, which limits their scope to what happens to an individual’s soul. Were we to read them through a first century lens, we would find that God is saving for himself a people and not just persons. We would see that salvation changes one’s corporate identity and not just his personal destination.

We would see, as Hellerman has memorably put it, that we are not only justified in salvation but “familyfied.” We are not only united to Christ, but to his people. This awareness is largely missing among contemporary Bible readers, with the result that many people are quite satisfied to be “unchurched” Christians. The biblical authors would have been flabbergasted.


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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2 Responses to The Lenses We Wear When We Read the Bible

  1. Kerri Skrudland says:

    In the future, you should hesitate to use a movie you have not seen as an example in your writing. You imply that Rose was selfish when throwing over her boorish fiancé for love. While that might be so in the strictest sense, as her mother likely ended up in dire circumstances following the events of the film, the fiancé also was abusive. He was verbally abusive and looked to be well on his way to being physically abusive. Should she have sacrificed her own safety in pursuit of her duty? Some people in the first century, and indeed even today, would agree with that sentiment, but I certainly don’t.


    • salooper57 says:

      Your point is well taken, Kerri, about commenting on a movie I have not seen. Rose’s selfishness, however, was not the point I was trying to make. I was hoping to illustrate the group-first mindset that lies behind much of the biblical writings. People living in that culture could be just as selfish, but it was less likely to be displayed in ways that we see in contemporary culture. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to offer a helpful comment. – Shayne


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