No matter where you are today, I can honestly and affirmatively say: Jesus didn’t live out his earthly life in your culture or mine.
First, if you live in the western world, like me, he definitely didn’t come from our culture. Jesus was born in first century Israel, in Bethlehem, which is today in the disputed West Bank area.
It’s a very relative term of course, where I live on the west coast of Canada, it would actually be quicker to travel west to get to what we often think of as the “eastern” world. The fact we denote this spot as the west and some other spot as the east, shows our bias. West of what? West of Europe.
Europe was once seen (probably mostly by Europeans) as the centre of the world. We’ve all seen the European Jesus in ancient art. We’ve all seen the European Jesus in the movies. But the fact is, the culture Jesus was born into, was entirely different than a European or “western” one.
There are many differences between what we call eastern and western cultures. As someone from the west, starting to learn more about some eastern cultures, by virtue of relationships with people from eastern cultures, I can see that what I take for granted as “the normal way” of doing things, is not the universal, or even most popular way of doing or seeing things.
Second, the culture Jesus walked the earth in, was an ancient culture. It was pre-internet. Pre-electricity. For some of us, it may be easier to imagine that than others. Many of you may have grown up in a time before the internet. Some of you may have even grown up without electricity in your homes. But it’s doubtful any remember a time before cars. And yet even something like that dramatically changed the world we live in.
One of the things that fascinates me about history, is the way it’s both eerily familiar and eerily other worldly. At times even reading the thoughts and opinions of people from my own culture, written 100 years ago, include such foreign logic to me, that it’s hard to relate. And it is much harder to put ourselves into the shoes of someone from a culture that ceased to exist over two thousand years ago.
When we look at scripture, we tend to read between the lines with our own cultural viewpoints. We assume the people we are reading about share our standards and customs. So when things in the Bible seem peculiar by our own cultural standards, we tend to gloss over, downplay, skip, or avoid those passages.
But it’s important to remember the Bible is not the story of you and me, in fact it’s ultimately not even the story of the disciples, prophets, kings, or ancient Jews and Gentiles. It’s the story of God.
When studying the book of John with our church’s youth group, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. When I read the gospels I tend to put myself in the disciples shoes. I imagine that I would respond similar to them, or maybe opposite from them, but either way I imagine myself being one of the people following and listening to Jesus speak. I noticed our youth kids put themselves in Jesus shoes… or sandals I should say.
The point of the Bible is to understand God. I think at times we read it looking for it to tell us about ourselves. We look for God’s will for our lives rather than God’s will period. We look to the disciples, judges, kings, and prophets for examples of how we can relate to God, instead of looking for God and what He is doing in the story.
We must understand the context of which the Bible was written. The culture of the people the letters and histories were written to, or about. But most of all, we must recognize the Bible is written about God, who exists in a culture of His own, entirely distinct from our culture, or of the ancient people’s in the Bible.
Which leads me to the subject of the next part of this series on culture and Christianity: God’s Heavenly Culture. We’ll get to that next time. Until then, my thought for you today is: try to learn about the cultures of the writers and characters of the Bible. When you come across a passage that feel so unusual to your cultural sensibilities and viewpoint, stop. Recognize that your culture and viewpoint is not the be all and end all, and ask the Holy Spirit to open up your eyes to the reason that passage is in the Bible.
Rooting for you guys to learn and grow in Christ!
Mandarin, unlike English, is a tonal language. As an English speaker, I find it difficult to grasp the tones. This illustrates just how different cultures can be.
When we don’t understand a language in its native form and rely on translations instead, meaning and ideological understanding are often lost. Many languages have phrases or colloquialisms that are not easily translated. Additionally, some concepts are hard to translate because of a lack of equivalent words.
For example, English has one word for love, regardless of the degree or type of love that is being expressed. In modern colloquial English, love is used to describe positive feelings ranging from favouring a flavour of cheese or hockey team, to the passion and dedication you have for your significant other, or your worship of God. All of these in English use the singular word for love, love.
Many languages have multiple words for love. Take ancient Greek for example, which include agape (unconditional love), éros (romantic love), philia (love on a friendship level), philautia (self love), to name a few.
From this we can see how it would be easy to misunderstand what is being said about something as crucial as love, when translating from other languages to English. It’s more than just how to translate, but it’s about a lack of cultural understanding. The fact the Greek’s had multiple words for love where we have one, could show how little we value love compared to those who wrote works in Greek, such as the New Testament writers.
Some don’t push past the difficult early stages of learning a new language, before giving up, but for those who persevere, there is a great reward. Studies show there are many mental benefits to learning a second language.
In my next few Coffee with Chris videos, I want to talk about a few different angles of culture in the Bible, but for this video, the thought I want to leave you with it this: we need to be understanding of one another’s cultures and not assume ours is superior.
We all have a natural tendency, especially when we are young, to assume the culture we grew up in is the base point for common thought or action. Put plainly, we think our cultural is “the normal one”.
Malaysian comedian Ronny Chieng pointed out in one of his sets, roughly two thirds of the world’s population are Asian. Humourously, he went on to state that (and I’m paraphrasing here to keep it family friendly), “I could drive down the street with my feet on the steering wheel dancing to Gangnam Style if I wanted to, and if all of us did it, guess what? That would become the correct way to drive.” To take it a step further, imagine if everyone in Asia drove this way, how many of us would still feel we set the tone for “normal”.
Of course, this is a silly example. But it should make us think, what other things we take for granted as being normal? We can subtly assume our culture does everything “the right way”. This can make us rigid and unwilling to learn about other cultures, or other people.
In the news recently we’ve seen how cultures and peoples have been mistreated and misunderstood. Even cultures so close to home. This has resulted in racism and hatred in some people.
The Bible calls us to love our neighbours. Part of loving them is trying to listen and understand. And we need to have an open mind that our way of thinking or doing things as we have always done, is not necessarily what is “normal”. Our views on certain things that we may have held for all our lives, may not be the right views. Let’s listen, with humility.
In my next Coffee video, I’ll be taking these concepts further, to talk about the culture Jesus was born into. Until, let’s listen and learn about the cultures outside of our own.
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