Approaching Cultural Exegesis: Bringing Along All The Right Baggage

THIS ARTICLE IS BY ANDY JANSEN, AN UPSTREAM INTERN FOCUSING ON CONTENT MANAGEMENT

We are carrying around cultural baggage. If you open one person’s suitcase, it might contain the idea that speaking loudly in public is rude. Another person’s suitcase might contain the idea that ghosts do not exist. A third person’s suitcase might say that democracy is right, and so on. The process of cultural exegesis is the process of opening another culture’s suitcase and examining what’s inside, and we need to know how to do this in order to understand people and communicate the gospel clearly.

We run into a problem – as the postmodernist loves to point out – when we consider that we are entering in with our own cultural blind spots, lenses, and perspectives. We are wearing the clothes of our own culture, and we don’t know how to make sense of the stranger's clothes before us. How could we ever hope to accurately understand such an alien culture in the first place?

Fortunately, as believers we have already done this once before – or rather the Spirit has done this in us, giving us illumination to think after God. He did this in us through the living and active word, so sharp it pierces and exposes the very inmost desires of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). The word has opened our suitcase and told us we needed to get rid of some of the clothes, which offended God, and it told us to put something else on instead. It told us to clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14).

Here we find the first and most basic secret to doing cultural exegesis well. The secret to discerning cultures for gospel clarity is to be clothed in the cultural narratives of Scripture and know the gospel of Christ like you know your best friend. This gives us the spiritual eyes to see other cultures as they line up or depart from what pleases the Lord.

Gain a Taste for the Good

Just minutes into the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the world’s most renowned sushi master, Jiro Ono, makes a curious observation:

In order to make delicious food you must eat delicious food.

Really? For someone who has given his life in unbending discipline to his craft, the prospect of sitting around eating top-notch sushi all the time sounds a bit cushy. But his logic is infallible:

The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food.

Many of us are familiar with the verse that says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8), but how do we do this daily in order to develop a spiritual palate for discerning good and bad? We meditate on Scripture until it works its way into everything like mixing yeast into flour. We write it on our foreheads and hands. We refuse to lean on our own understanding. We learn to live not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Having a Christ-like mindset toward culture is essential because we know that the alternative, being conformed to our own culture’s worldly perspective, may seem right intuitively but distracts from the gospel or worse. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12, ESV) How easy it is to make war on a culture’s violations of privacy, their collectivism, their chauvinism, or their racism and leave them without news of a savior. Everyone is still left doing what is right in their own eyes.

Well then, how much Bible is enough Bible? Do you have to read your Bible every day? Do you have to read the entire Bible every year? These questions presume we have received a rather cheap and common gospel, as if the Bible was quite uninteresting. Imagine, for instance, you were a jewel appraiser, and after a long time of searching, you one day discovered a priceless pearl that was being sold for the exact cost of what little you owned. Would it bother you to give up your puny savings account to gain the pearl? No! You would be hard-pressed to control your facial expression as you carried out such a scandalous transaction, and you’d spend the rest of your life in awe that you had acquired that pearl!

Seek Wisdom Like It Is Treasure

Not only is the Bible a treasure beyond beauty, but its wisdom – rare as that is – is truly available if we seek it and ask for it. The Bible promises, 

Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:3-5, ESV).

In fact, wisdom is seeking us! Wisdom cries aloud in the streets to come and listen (Proverbs 1:20-23). James even commands us to ask God for wisdom (James 1:5).

Now if all I meant to suggest in the end was that we ought to simply read Scripture a lot, a reasonable response would be, “Well, duh.” That’s not the point. We must delight ourselves in Scripture.

We must love Scripture because through it we come to a firsthand encounter with God. We see and remember all that God has done. In light of everything he has done and the grace God has lavished on us through redemption, it is easy to give up everything. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices in worship. Paul wrote,

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8, ESV).

That is to say that our love for Scripture must be deeply personal. The pearl we gain in the end is Jesus himself, and just as a loving husband cannot conceive of life outside of knowing his wife, knowing Christ influences the way we understand and interact with everything. At this point, I hope it is clear that saying you “have to” read the Bible is like a husband saying he “has to” kiss his wife. It is his absolute pleasure.

Speak From the Heart

We must treasure up the word in our hearts. Store it away, and it will definitely return at the right time. We won’t even be able to stop it. Jesus explained,

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:45, ESV).

Now when someone drinks too much wine and becomes drunk, they cannot help but reveal themselves to be an idiot. That person becomes blustery, shouting and yelling all kinds of nonsense and profanity. Similarly, when you’re filled with the Spirit and the promises of Scripture, you can’t help but sing forth God’s praises to one another. Your speech becomes slurred in the most beautiful way. Go ahead and drink deeply then from the wine vats of the gospel. “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7, ESV).

Whatever is overflowing spills out onto everything, revealing much about a transformed way of thinking. You will begin to view the world through spiritual eyes. By your very sense of what is pleasing to God, discerning cultures by their own patterns of thoughts, desires, and behaviors will become second nature.

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