Listening to those Outside
“I have never thought of it that way.” It’s a phrase that I have had to get used to saying throughout my life. Whether it’s after a conversation with my wife or with one of my kids, there are times we have to admit that our thinking is simply not sufficient – and that’s ok.
Kenneth Bailey is a theologian who specializes in Middle Eastern New Testament studies. He spent forty years living and teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. His book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes helps readers experience the Gospels with a fuller understanding of the culture of the time of Jesus. It is a great resource for anyone preaching the parables, or about Jesus’ birth, or at Easter, or really, any time.
As I reread that text recently, I ran across this quote: “The gospel is not safe in any culture without a witness within that culture, from beyond itself… In every culture the message of the gospel is in constant danger of being compromised by the value system that supports that culture and its goals. The stranger to that culture can instinctively identify those points of surrender and call the community back to a purer and more authentic faith. But such infusions of new life are usually resented and resisted” (165-6).
The gospel we read and live out is always bound up within our own cultural framework. This is both beautiful (that our faith can be personal as well as culturally relevant to our specific circumstance and time) and dangerous (that we can assume our culturally bound faith is the only possible faith). In a world where we want certainty, I have had to be willing to say, “I have never thought of it that way,” a number of times in conversations about Scripture with those from outside my cultural context.
There is no way for me to escape my culture. And there is no way for my culture not to influence my faith. Reading Bailey’s book is a reminder to me of all the things I miss in Scripture because the cultural context of Jesus’ time is so vastly different from my own context. It’s also good to remember the cultural context of the Bible shifts as well; whether we are reading about the Jews in exile or the early church under Roman rule, there are intersecting cultures that impact each book in the Bible. For me, this makes approaching Scripture rich and exciting, but it also forces me to hold my understandings with humility.
The challenge to us is to live out our faith in a way that is intimate, personal, and defining of our identity, but to not live so closed off to others and to change, that we are resistant to what God may have to teach us from those from the outside. Who from outside your cultural context is allowed to challenge you in your faith?