Some people ask, "How can the Bible be relevant today, or have any authority over our lives, when it contains so many strange things?" For example, the Apostle Paul said women should wear head coverings. This seems antiquated and bizarre.
Sometimes unclear passages in the Bible are used as an excuse to ignore the central message about Jesus. We are all good at avoiding things we don't want to deal with, but I also think the question needs to be answered.
Because we believe the apostles and prophets received revelation from God, we believe there is something in their message that is meaningful. However, every word of God was spoken in a cultural context. These revelations came to people who lived in a time and culture quite different from our own, and used a language strange to our ears. Therefore, we have to do the hard work of studying their expressions and thought forms. We cannot assume they are exactly like ours. We must do the work of a historian, because we do not want to be presumptuous about their meaning.
Why study the culture? Why study the message? In order to distinguish between the essence of God's revelation and its cultural setting.
We distinguish between a person and his or her clothing. Mrs. Hatfield may change her clothing twice a day, but she remains Mrs. Hatfield. So it is the case with our study of the Bible. The cultural idiom may change, but the essential revelation does not. This is an important principle of biblical interpretation.
How do we separate the man from his hat, the corn from the husk, the wheat from the chaff? How do we keep the essential teaching and eliminate the nonessential cultural husk? The truth the apostles communicated is what is important to us. But they spoke to specific situations in various cultures of their day. Some of the cultural elements might not be essential. So we want to know how to keep the baby while we change the bath water.
John Stott, formerly rector of All Souls Church in London, talks about the importance of "cultural transposition," borrowing a concept from music. A good musician can take a piece of music originally written in the key of C and transpose it so that it is played in the key of A or G, for example. But the melody remains the same.
When Stott speaks of cultural transposition, he means that we should distinguish between "the essence of God's revelation," which does not change, and the "cultural setting," which does.
For example, in First Corinthians we can hear the Apostle Paul say that women should have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy in the congregation. Yet when we examine the passage, and see the way he spoke about a parallel hypothetical situation involving men, we realize what the apostle's main concern was. Paul's chief concern was maintaining clear distinctions between male and female. Because God created the human race as male and female, these creaturely distinctions are not to be minimized, degraded or disrespected.
There are various ways that different societies mark and recognize distinctions between male or female. In one society, such as Corinth in Paul's day, that culture expected the adult woman to wear a head covering in certain contexts. So Paul said, in essence, don't disregard the way in which distinctions between male and female are made in Corinth. That was his central concern.
But Paul could have encountered other cultures where women were not expected to wear a head covering in public contexts. In those places, there would have been other distinctive features of dress or hairstyle, for example, marking the differences between male and female. For example, had Paul stopped off at the Balearic Islands on his way to Spain, head coverings would have been the least of his concerns. In different contexts, Christian leaders would not have commanded women to cover their heads. They would have taken the essence of Paul's concern and said, "Maintain proper distinctions between living as male or female."
I hope this explains why most branches of Christianity today do not require women literally to cover their heads. Yes, some groups do. But they may be in danger of keeping the old bath water along with the baby.
This doesn't answer all questions, but it does indicate that biblical writings require a careful reading. The message is often clear, but where it is expressed in language that is not easy to understand, it requires patient work on our part.
Stott also says cultural transposition only applies when there are two levels of discourse. When there is only one, as in Jesus' statement, "God is Spirit" or "the Son knows the Father," or John's statement, "God is love," no transposition is required. Yet even here, these short but potent sentences were not said in a vaccuum. That is why we seek to understand these words in their full reference to the revelation of God in Israel and Jesus of Nazareth.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 628 Lincoln St. Contact him at 509-525-6872, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.