You Aren’t Speaking to a Christian Culture

by Tom Terry

Every few days my youngest daughter, Whitney comes to me with a series of written questions about the Bible. We review the passages together, discuss her understanding of the issues being presented, and then I share with her my interpretation of the events in the narrative. Something that takes place regularly has me thinking about our culture. You see, there are things she is asking about in the Gospels that from my perspective are very self-explanatory. They should be easy to understand. But when she brings me her questions it is apparent to me that she does not understand some of what she is reading.

This was bewildering at first because Whitney is no idiot, not by a long shot. She is a bright, intelligent, creative, and observant person. Very often she gets the best of me. So when she has difficulty understanding what I think are simple passages of scripture I scratch my head and wonder what’s going on. Especially when I consider her background. She grew up in a Christian home, but not just any Christian home, she’s grown up in a missionary’s home. She took schooling that taught the Bible. She’s heard her father teach and once in a while fill a pulpit for a morning. So what’s the problem?

As we went through today’s questions it hit me: She’s not in a Christian culture. This is not to be critical of my daughter. Everything I’ve praised about her is true. But what I’ve learned is that just because she grew up the way she did doesn’t necessarily mean she will understand the scripture in its fulness at her current level of spiritual growth.

First, I have to keep in mind that I’ve been in the scriptures for 30 years, but my daughter has not. She may be a smart adult but she’s not seasoned in the scriptures at my level. This means I must accommodate myself to her understanding. I don’t know everything but I certainly know more than my daughters do, who are young in Christ compared to me or my wife. What to me is basic is instead more advanced to someone else who hasn’t known Jesus very long. I have to keep this in mind. I encountered this with another friend I was helping to disciple. She was a very bright student, but when it came to the basics her interpretations were sometimes way off.

Second, when reading the New Testament a recent or young believer in Christ will often not understand the context of what he or she is reading because the Bible was written in an ancient, foreign culture. Some of the references in the New Testament require a good understanding of the Old Testament. Jesus didn’t appear in a vacuum. He came to a people entrenched in a culture that was formed by the Mosaic Law and the Prophets. The Old Testament isn’t her strong suit (yet), so many of the New Testament references go past her. This isn’t sin or bad, it’s just a matter of familiarizing oneself with the scripture and that takes time.

When I say that she’s not in a Christian culture I mean that she doesn’t yet have all of the knowledge she needs to self-interpret most of scripture. That doesn’t mean something is wrong with her. It simply means that she’s in a learning process just as any student would be learning any subject.

Third, like anyone from any culture, Whitney is naturally interpreting scripture through the lens of the culture she is most familiar with. In other words, she filters everything through a set of preconceived notions that guide her understanding. We all have these filters. The problem is that the Bible was not written using our set of modern 21st century filters. Its text is ancient. Don’t misunderstand me, I do not mean to say that scripture is not applicable for us today. In fact, the scripture is wholly applicable to our lives, but we have to appropriate it in a way that addresses our modern issues without misunderstanding its ancient meaning. That takes time. Sometimes it takes a long time.

Now let me apply my discovery to our Christian practices today. When we discuss the scripture or contemporary issues in light of the Bible there are some assumptions we should put aside and replace them with new insight.

(1) When discussing the scripture with someone who knows little or nothing about Christian things we must accommodate their level of understanding by speaking in a way which helps them to identify with the Bible at a practical level. This does not mean that people are dumb. It simply means that they are coming to the Bible as something new in their lives and therefore it takes time to help disciple them to a level where they can get the meaning by themselves.

(2) We can discuss scripture using “Christianese” but some of our meaning will be lost. Take time to describe things in a more neutral or simple fashion and let your hearer put things together in his or her own time. Eventually he or she will grasp what they need to know. They don’t need to know it all, they just need what they need for the need of the moment. Then, slowly, move on from there.

(3) Try your best not to assume that the references you are using, even from the scripture, are automatically understood by your hearer. Here’s a quick example: What does it mean for a person to be redeemed? Do we mean that a person’s mistaken actions can be turned into something good? Do we mean that a person makes a payment to purchase something? Do we mean that there is an exchange of value to buy a slave? Do we mean that a widow is to be acquired by her brother-in-law as a wife? Is the New Testament concept of redemption related to any of these or does it mean something else? Don’t assume your hearer will automatically understand without taking the time to unpack the meaning for him or her.

The New Testament, and especially the Gospels, use terms that only have their proper meaning by understanding their roots in the Old Testament. Take time to explain, but don’t overdo it. There is so much richness in the scripture that a person can sometimes be overwhelmed.

We are no longer in a Christian culture. Many of the things we might say as Christians are foreign concepts to our hearers. Learning how to accommodate ourselves to our audience is an important part of fulfilling our mission to make disciples. Just as someone was patient and accommodating with you, return the favor to the ones you are helping. It may take time, but they will understand, and learn, and grow to become all that God intends for them to be. Used by permission.

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