…. they were unschooled, ordinary men …. they had been with Jesus …. the crippled man healed standing with them – Acts 4:13,14
In this post we’ll explore
** how views & interpretations are influenced, .. and sometimes swayed and virally propagated, ..
particularly in a social media world of continuous, immediate information feeds.
The consequences are similar to Jesus court hearing, where logical fallacies were used against Him,
instead of facts and evidence; alternative narratives, half-truths propagated (how truth was crucified).
** In the second part of this post, we’ll examine
examples from North America, Europe, Africa, Middle East on how our background,
cultural perspectives & values influence our Bible reading,
** Also include in this post are some principles on Bible reading and interpretation, with examples.
Our social, cultural perspectives, experiences & values influence our thoughts, definitions of things, and actions, … worldview, eg:
In our chats with friends and colleagues about the daily news,
sometimes we hear a wide varying range of responses and perspectives;
more so, if people are from different parts of the world.
In some western countries, an “Asian” is thought of as a darker skin person from South Asia,
while in other countries an “Asian” is thought of as an East Asian oriental.
Similarly, driving a car for some, left is right, … while for others right is always right.
Culture is embedded in the native language in words, phrases, idioms, metaphors.
Unless we read Greek or Hebrew, the majority of us read translations of the Bible,
using words in the native language.
For example, to some “family” implies obligations to the immediate nuclear family, … while for others, family implies obligations to the extended family, … while others, it may extend to others from the same village.
In some cultures, the word “house” is both a physical dwelling, and a family.
Misunderstandings can arise out of difference in definitions,
the same English word or phrase may be nuanced by one’s native culture, … or mean something else to others, or depending on the context its used
Sometimes, a native language does not use or have an equivalent word for Bible translation.
Example: Check the native word for “bread” used in “Bread of Life” (John 6:35), and the bread at the last supper (Luke 22:19) in the Chinese, Korean, Thai Bible. Furthermore, what’s Jewish bread like?
In family disagreements, after hearing the actions of someone’s relative,
… sometimes, … its interesting to discover the truth,
when we ourselves, meet the person (that’s described), and hear their side of the story.
Much like reading the history books from two nations of their accounts of a past war between them, … or a conqueror’s version and a native’s version of history.
Jargon, christian words/concepts, christian buzzwords can be confusing,
thus, its better to speak in plain simple language for clarity.
Depending from which way one looks,
or which way one chooses to look,
its possible that some may see the cylinder as
a flat 4-sided rectangle, .. or a flat no-sided circle, .. or a 3-D solid cylinder.
For the one who sees a rectangle … or a circle,
if they refuse to shift,
… they can never see that the object is truly a 3-D solid cylinder.
Therein lies the challenge, … of being humble, open, inquiring,
… seeking facts and truth, … to understand;
being open to challenge our own personal paradigms, prejudices and assumptions.
Consider, if we lived in the days of the Bible,
and we met Jesus .. a carpenter, .. from up North in Galilee, … not schooled in religious Jerusalem,
would we have listened to him ?
Let’s begin by exploring how views are influenced, … and sometimes swayed, propagated
using examples from the trial of Jesus and other passages in the Bible.
The Internet is an open forum of many voices and views. Daily we receive forward links/snippets from well-meaning friends. Sometimes, in these links/snippets, very interesting interpretations of the Bible are presented, well known leaders quoted, opposing views criticised.
How can we better navigate to discern truth from deception ?
Early in His trial, Jesus made it clear how the Truth should be objectively judged,
23 “If I have spoken wrongly,” Jesus answered him [high priest],
“give evidence about the wrong;
but if rightly, why do you hit Me?”
20 “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus answered him.
“… I haven’t spoken anything in secret.”
John 18:23, 20 (HCSB)
Give verifiable evidence
… The Bereans were eager to hear what Paul and Silas said
and studied the Scriptures every day
to find out if these things were true.
Acts 17:11 (NCV)
The Bereans checked & confirmed what Paul and Silas said with the Scriptures. They read and studied the Scriptures everyday.
Mindsets, social perspectives, values and experiences color our perceptions and understanding.
In a sense, we unconsciously choose what we want to hear,
… emphasizing somethings, disregarding others, … some details somehow left out, … remembering points that resonate with ours, etc …
Example – confirmation bias — the tendency to interprete, recall or favor information that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses (wikipedia)
“This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah:
‘They hear, but don’t understand;
they look, but don’t see!
Matthew 13:14 (TLB)
Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye
but don’t notice the log in your own eye?
Matthew 7:3 (HCSB)
a large log in our vision, … distorts a speck of sawdust,
altering our ability to see clearly
In seeing Christ clearly, Paul mentions about cultural mindset filters/lens that influence our understanding of Jesus:
22 For the Jews ask for signs
and the Greeks seek wisdom,
23 but we preach Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to the Jews
and foolishness to the Gentiles.
24 Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom
1 Corinthians 1:22, 23 (HCSB)
Misunderstandings may arise out of differences in definitions,
the same word or phrase may be nuanced,
or mean something else to others;
and sometimes it depends on the context and culture its used
eg. jargon, christian words/concepts, homonyms (tree bark, dog bark), etc.
Here’s an example: the definition of “kingdom”.
At Jesus trial before Pilate,
John 18:33-35,36, 38 (NASB)
33 Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him,
“Are You the King of the Jews?”
(implying: Is Jesus a political threat to the land ?)
34 Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative,
or did others tell you about Me?”
Jesus asked Pilate whether he was merely repeating/parroting what others told him?
Or, was this his own conclusion based on facts he had gathered?
35 Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me;
what have You done?”
Pilate was honest about his limited knowledge of the case and its background;
the chief priests sent Jesus for Pilate to judge.
Moving away from labeling & titles,
Pilate decided to focus on facts — what acts Jesus did that warranted his trial.
… what have You done?”
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.
If My kingdom were of this world,
then My servants would be fighting
so that I would not be handed over to the Jews;
but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
Jesus explained His definition of His kingdom to Pilate,
and logically explained with the evidence/facts of His innocence — My servants would be fighting, if My kingdom were of this world; i.e. there wasn’t any uprising or revolt against the ruling Romans. (thereby, answering Pilate’s question ‘What have You done?”)
Hence, no evidence of actions against the authorities, or broken any laws of the land, that deserve His arrest.
Thus, Pilate honestly concluded,
38 … Pilate went out again to the Jews and said to them,
“I find no guilt in Him.”
After Jesus’ resurrected, His disciples also asked Him a ‘kingdom’ question?
Acts 1:6-8 (NASB)
6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying,
“Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom
7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority;
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you shall be My witnesses
both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
Jesus did not answer “yes” or “no” to the disciples’ question,
… or even “when?”
Jesus clarified the meaning of His kingdom.
Jesus described the global spread of His kingdom upon the earth, by the Holy Spirit upon His followers. And, … his disciples will soon find out, to their amazement … as the pages of Acts unfold.
Crowd effect … Social media
Added to this, in our Internet social media age, … netizens can tune into virtual enclave networks & newsfeeds with folks similar to oneself, further reinforcing one’s views through viral messages, … tuning out other views and data. With social media algorithms repeating similar messages akin to one’s previous clicks or preferences … a tweet can grow into a torrent … creating an echo chamber effect of a single resonating loud note.
Continuing with Jesus trial before Pilate,
38 Pilate said to Jesus, “What is truth?”
And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews,
and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all.
John 18:38 (NKJV)
20 Pilate argued with them, because he wanted to release Jesus.
21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
22 Then Pilate said to them the third time,
“Why, what evil has He done?
I have found no reason for death in Him.
I will therefore chastise Him and let Him go.”
23 But they were insistent,
demanding with loud voices that Jesus be crucified.
And the voices of these men and of the chief priests prevailed.
Luke 23:20-23 (NKJV)
Pilate – versus – an angry crowd,
… which one is the authority?
Pilate’s impartial reasoning based on facts
was silenced by the deafening, defiant, demanding crowd
who refused to listen to the facts of the case;
their views of Jesus swayed.
Rage, shock and fear stirred up a mob.
Truthiness, .. post-truth, post-fact, .. fake news, .. alternative facts, ..
‘What is truth?’
Pilate rightly asked.
Crucify him! Crucify him!”
They hid behind a crowd, … and demanded Jesus be crucified.
In virtual communities on the Internet, true identities are hidden behind a username or avatar. In some cases, this anonymity emboldens people to say things they would not normally say … face to face.
Like the crowd at Jesus trial, … when messages/posts are forwarded ad infinitum, its hard to verify who the actual source was, and their original intention (eg. unfounded anonymous rumors).
In general, messages trigger emotions within us, … sadness, joy, disgust, anger, awe, etc.
The same message can be crafted in different ways to influence emotional responses of whichever side.
Interpretation also depends on the context. Eg. A statement may sometimes be viewed as a complement … or subtle sarcasm.
Researchers studied how fast various kinds of messages move across social communities on the Internet.
They found: joy moves faster (more viral) than sadness.
What moves the fastest were messages that arouse anger.
(further information: MIT Technology Review)
Anger is a hot button,
triggering rapid internet “forwards”, “shares”
See also Appeal to Emotion (Wikipedia)
As can be seen in the above-mentioned passage about Jesus trial,
… anger may overwhelm reason & sound judgment,
ignoring the evidence and facts,
ignoring justice for the innocent.
Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
James 1:20 (NLT)
For text media, without hearing the tone, emotional & facial cues, emphasis and pauses in sharing, …. its possible for a text message be mis-interpreted to mean something else. Short messages and snippets compress everything, with some details left out,
and assumptions attached.
When the listener’s interpretation
is not the same as
the speaker’s original intention & meaning, … an unfortunate misunderstanding happens.
(like in a game of Chinese whispers)
In the Bible, some of Jesus actions and teachings also caused considerable shock to the original audience who first heard it, (and even to us today) to inspire a shift in thinking & values to ‘kingdom’ thinking, believing & living.
For example, when Jesus chose to go to the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus house, … all the people who saw this began to complain:
“Jesus is going to be the guest of a notorious sinner!” Matthew 19:7 (ISV)
In the parable of the landowner and the workers, the last hour workers received the same as those who have toiled all day; and they began to complain to the landowner, 12 ‘These last fellows worked only one hour, but you paid them the same as us, and we’ve been working all day,enduring the scorching heat!’ Matthew 20:11,12 (ISV)
Through this parable demonstrating the immensity and audacity of God’s grace & mercy to everyone; no one is undeserving or less deserving.
Information … mis-information effect:
In our era, information is cleverly crafted, framed, photoshop, packaged & marketed into a fine art,
that grabs attention, tickle the listener’s ears, … and subtly guides the listener to an emotive intent, response, mindset,
building brand association, brand loyalty …. people movements …
“No one is born hating another person
because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.
People must learn to hate,
and if they can learn to hate,
they can be taught to love,
for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
— Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Let’s return to the trial of Jesus before the religious leaders, and see how mis-information was used against Him, … and influenced the crowd.
Mark 14:55-61 (NIV)
55 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56 Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.
57 Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” 59 Yet even then their testimony did not agree.
60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?”
61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
their statements did not agree,
their testimony did not agree,
the prosecution’s case built on mis-information was exposed
by their own undoing.
Yet in spite of the contradictions,
they still pressed on with their accusation of Jesus.
Jesus remained silent and gave no answer
Thus, rightly Jesus had nothing to answer to the high priest.
Back to Jesus before Pilate,
Mark 15:6,7, 9, 11 (NIV)
11 … the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
(i.e., instead of Jesus)
The source of this information to rally for Barabbas’ release
was the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin,
… a reputable, authoritative source,
.. or is it?
However, in this case, the information was mis-leading and stirred up (emotionally charged); This swayed the crowd’s view against releasing Jesus, … who was truly innocent.
Years, later Paul experienced a similar situation in the city,
27 … some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple.
They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him,
28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us!
This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people
and our law and this place.
And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple
and defiled this holy place.”
29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul
and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)
30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions.
Seizing Paul, …
Acts 21:27 (NIV)
See also Ad hominen (Wikipedia)
the crowd was stirred, … the city was aroused …
Assumption, .. heresay, .. rumours ?
Like the emperor’s new clothes,
views & reality were swayed, altered, … re-imagined …
if everyone says it,
if reputable, well-known people say it,
does it mean its … always true ?
The first person to speak always seems right
until someone comes and asks the right questions.
Proverbs 18:17 (ERV)
Back to Jesus trial.
10 Then Pilate said to Him, “Are You not speaking to me?
Do You not know that I have power to crucify You,
and power to release You?”
11 Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
12 From then on Pilate sought to release Him,
Thus, to get the result they wanted, …
but the Jews cried out, saying,
“If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.
Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.”
John 19:10-12 (NKJV)
Now, the attention of the crowd turned against Pilate.
Pilate’s character and allegiance was publicly discredited by the people with threats.
The issue became a personal attack, … the judicial authority, Pilate, was attacked.
In order to get their desired result, the goal posts got shifted,
Pilate’s allegiance and loyalty was being challenged.
i.e. if one does not agree with the message,
one way out is to discredit the messenger.
22 Pilate *said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
They all said, “Crucify Him!”
23 And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they kept shouting all the more, saying,
Matthew 27:22, 23 (NASB)
The crowd chose to ignore all evidence, facts. They were adamant & unrelenting. They chose to believe the mis-information, alternative narrative, … even to the point, .. of putting an innocent person to death.
What evil has He done?
no response from the crowd.
Social bias, stereotype effect
Consider some initial reactions from the disciples of Jesus:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
John 1:46 (NIV)
Thankfully, Nathanael was open to go and meet Jesus for himself.
9 The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
(Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked.
They couldn’t believe Jesus was talking with that kind of a woman.
No one said what they were all thinking,
but their faces showed it.
John 4:9, 27 (MSG)
Jesus challenged long-held cultural and social biases,
… Jesus respected the Samaritan woman. He reached out to her.
Our assumptions, biases, stereotypes, and experiences
color our listening and reading;
as well as our listening & reading choices,
and people we desire to be close to.
Its possible for some to be drawn to teachings and preachers who resonate with one’s aspirations, perspective, & values,
thereby overlooking other views, (or sometimes even the Bible);
sometimes, quoting the preacher’s words more than the words of Jesus.
Hence, when it comes to the Bible,
its helpful to read the Bible first-hand ourselves;
note the details in phrases & words within each passage in the Bible,
and the original context and historical background of the passage.
“Even though the Bible was written for us,
it wasn’t written to us,
it was written in another language, to another culture,
with all the cultural assumptions
that went along with that.
Because when we take our Western modern culture
and impose it on the text,
we’re putting in meaning that wasn’t there,
and we’ll missing the meaning that the text has.”
— John Walton
Thus, … unintended meanings may be introduced to certain verses/passages of the Bible, … if we ignore the context and background of the verse/passage.
This same principle also applies when we read any book, … isn’t it?
Some questions we can ask is —
is what is shared consistent with the character of Jesus?
Does it draw us closer to Jesus, knowing & loving Him more?
Is Jesus honored ?
… It’s important to look at things from God’s point of view.
1 Corinthians 4:6 (MSG)
Living out His words, … to be more like Jesus?
… Let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord …
Hosea 6:3 (NKJV)
“Therefore consider carefully how you listen. …”
“So pay attention to how you hear. …”
Luke 8:18 (NIV)
Do not judge by appearance [superficially and arrogantly],
but judge fairly and righteously.
Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.
John 7:24 (AMP, NLT)
In Luke’s introduction to his book, he wrote:
3 Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning,
I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus,
4 so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.
Luke 1:3 (NLT)
Luke carefully checked the original sources himself
to give an accurate account of the truth.
Its wise to follow Luke’s example,
of checking, validating, confirming,
… before sharing, teaching … or clicking the “forward‘ or “share” button.
Jesus asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;
others say Elijah;
and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked.
“Who do you say I am?”
Matthew 16:14,15 (NIV)
some say, … others say … large crowds say
… social media say … a well-known, reputable person says …
At the heart,
what’s our own view, … our understanding,
… our own conviction?
Bible. Facts, evidence.
On a side note, as we go through our day with continuous information feeds and streams from various sources,
to avoid being swayed by some of the mentioned effects, … let’s remember
whatever things are true,
whatever things are noble,
whatever things are just,
whatever things are pure,
whatever things are lovely,
whatever things are of good report,
if there is any virtue
and if there is anything praiseworthy
—meditate on these things.
Philippians 4:8 (NKJV)
(a good, responsible check before hitting the “forward” or “share” button.)
Cultural Perspectives, Values, Background
Its good to keep in mind that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, framed within a time, history, empires, and culture in the Middle East, at the cross-roads of Asia, Africa and Europe, two or more centuries ago. Hence, let’s take into account the original background, context, history and culture as we read Bible passages.
Thus avoiding the interpretation of Bible passages with our “modern eyes”, personal views/mindsets, or through the lens of our culture and language.
In the next section, we’re explore how our background influence our Bible reading, with interesting results;
taking examples from the American civil war, the parable of the prodigal son, and the views of Christians from various parts of the world.
In the American civil war, both sides held Bible passages to justify their polarised views — pro-slavery in the South, and the abolition of slavery in the North.
The pro-slavery group took a “literal interpretation
as if the Bible were speaking directly
about the modern American situation
events that occurred in a much different context,
(see Wikipedia for more information)
The significance of the Bible issue in the war is expressed in a famous phrase in Lincoln’s second inaugural:
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,
and each invokes His aid against the other.“
Thankfully, slavery is now no longer condoned, and outlawed in most countries.
“The method known as “proof-texting” is legitimate and proper only when the interpreter carefully studies each passage in its
historical and grammatical context
to be sure that it actually teaches the point for it is now being used.
Carelessness in this matter has often brought disrepute to Christianity.
The Bible has been “proof-texted” to support rascism, sexism, the flat earth, and many other unworthy causes.
Proper proof-text never quotes a passage
to make it say
what we want to say
apart from its background”
— Berkeley Mickelsen & Alvera Mickelsen, Understanding Scripture, Hendrickson Publishers, 1980, Chapter 13
In Mark Allan Powell’s book What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew,
he shared about a study with seminary students where 100 Americans and 50 Russians (from St Petersberg) were asked to retell the parable of the prodigal son from memory.
About the Famine :
6% Americans, 84% Russians mentioned this.
The author notes a major famine in St Petersberg in 1941 during the German invasion in the WWII
About the prodigal son squandering his property in wasteful living:
100% Americans, 34% Russians mentioned this.
Regarding the difference in mentioning squandering his property in wasteful living, Mark Powell noted from his discussions with the students in the study:
“How revealing it is that Americans think the great sin was wasting money. They think this because money is very important to them.
In a capitalist country, it must be a very bad thing to squander one’s inheritance.”
But in a socialist state, the sin is self-sufficiency.
This boy’s sin was that he wanted to make it in the world on his own …
… His mistake was leaving his father’s house in the first place. His sin was placing a price tag on the value of his family, thinking that money was all he needed from them. Once he had his share of the family fortune, the family itself no longer mattered. In a phrase, his sin was wanting to be self-sufficient.
… Our point at present is not to challenge either take on this parable but to illustrate the determinative effect that social location can have on interpretation of texts.
Obviously, the text of Luke 15 mentions both squandering and famine — but readers tend to prioritize one element over the other, often to the point of dropping the minor element from consideration altogether. They do this subconsciously and yet seem prepared to defend the selection when it is pointed out to them.”
— Source: Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew, Abingdon Press, 2007, Chapter 2
With regards to
“the younger son …wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” Luke 15:13 (NKJV)
and the older brother’s assertion:
“This son of yours … who has devoured your livelihood with harlots” Luke 15:30 (NKJV)
“… The authors of the Western commentaries appear to be interpreting Luke 15:13 in light of what the older brother says later (in 15:30), and they assume that the brother’s accusation is accurate.
The Eastern authors make no such assumption and simply present the boy as spending his money on things that would not be necessarily immoral but that revealed no thought for the future.
Thus again: in the West the boy is wicked;
in the East, he is merely foolish.
… In a nutshell, the younger son is typically portrayed as foolish in Eastern cultures
and as wicked or immoral in Western ones”
On a final note, are there other responses to the prodigal son parable?
The author did the same study with about 50 seminarians in Tanzania, Africa.
After reading the story, the author asked them to write down the answer to one question
— ‘Why does the young man end up starving in the pigpen?“
“… the vast majority — around 80 percent wrote something completely different:
“Because no one gave him anything to eat.”
… if you check out the story in Luke 15, it does say that.
It says, “he squandered his property” in verse 13,
and it says, “a severe famine took place throughout the country” in verse 14,
and it says, “no one gave him anything” in verse 16.
Obviously, all three reasons contributed to why the young man ended starving in the pigpen.”
(pls kindly read the book for the reasons why the Tanzanians gave their answer 🙂 )
The wonderful thing is …. all three views are consistent with what is recorded in scripture 🙂
And, … reading all three views does enrich us to explore interesting angles of the story.
Same story, … different perspectives & emphasis from the audience.
These observations by the author, Mark Powell,
in cross-cultural settings,
suggest the possibility of
multiple answers to some questions in bible study guides
or even, perspectives that may be nuanced, or different
from the model answer of a bible study guide, or the study guide author’s original intention.
And like in this study with Americans, Russians and Tanzanians,
… its best to return to the Bible to explore and check;
let’s follow the Bible.
When we are dealing with cross-cultural and multi-cultural ministry,
it is important to see God at work in all cultures,
not just one.
— Soong-Chan Rah
In Paul-Gordon Chandler book, “God’s Global Mosaic, What we can learn from Christians around the world“, he explores the faith and experiences of non-Western Christians from 6 different parts of the world.
On Africa, he notes:
“… Paul talks about the vital importance of discovering true freedom. This theme runs throughout the Bible but can be most seen in Romans 8. … To write with such certainty, Paul must have tasted of God’s freedom. …
Christianity in Africa proposes and proclaims a message of God’s liberation. African Christians have a greater experiential understanding of God’s freedom than any other Christians I have met anywhere in the world. The freedom that Jesus gives them is not so much a doctrine that is preached as an experience that is realized.
Richard Gray, an expert in African history, says, “One of the deepest and most enduring desires of all African societies is the anxiety to eliminate evil.” Therefore, Christianity is regarded by believers in Africa as a new and ultimate source of supernatural power, capable of fighting evil successfully and effectively to bring freedom. To them “evil” means anything limiting, besetting or destroying life.
I remember sitting in a discussion about the Christian faith in Senegal, West Africa, when a young Muslim man made a decision to believe in and follow Jesus Christ. Immediately I began thinking above all the difficulties he might face. He would probably be ostracized by his family, losing his social status — and maybe worse. … There had been cases where families tried to end the life of a son or daughter before he or she became too Christianized. This young man was reminded of all these possible ramifications of his decision. Yet he just sat there with such a deep sense of peace and calm, his face almost glowing. I spoke with him afterward about his sense of peace, and he explained that he was simply thinking about all that he had been freed from. He experienced coming to faith as “an indescribable release”.
African Christians have a strong and clear understanding that the very essence of God’s character of freedom. They see God for who he is, that he longs to free us. God is freedom This is the essence of the Gospel — God rescuing, liberating humanity.
… The true Christ is one who breaks the binding power of the chains, the one who comes alongside prisoners and frees them. The image of Christ that is most vivid to African Christian is that of Christ the liberator in all dimensions of life. Christ the healer par excellence of their fears, concerns and diseases. Christ is the one who sets His people free in the here and now.
… God is first and foremost, above and beyond anything else, committed to freeing us. This specific presentation of God’s character is evident throughout the Old and New Testaments. Yet just as he is our Savior only when we allow Him to be our Savior, so also he is our liberator only when we allow Him that role in our lives.
Western Christians, however, tend to be far more focused these days on trying to free themselves. This is clear from the plethora of “how-to” self-help books in Christian bookstores, telling us how to win freedom in this or that area of our lives.
In contrast to the Western presumption that we can save ourselves, the African Christian asks for complete salvation from God.
I tried once to find a Christian book on personal suffering written in French but from an African perspective for a seminary student in the Central African Republic. I spent months looking everywhere as I traveled in the African continent, but the only books I could find addressed the more general topic of evil in the world. While hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Christian self-help books exist in the West. I could not find one that originated in Africa. To the African Christian freedom starts with God. So often our Western Christian self-help ideas miss that starting point, meaning that any outcome can only be temporary.
Joseph — A life of freedom
The story of Joseph, the flamboyant Old Testament patriarch who spent most of his life in Africa, is an extended exposition of freedom. We are shown how God freed him over and over again, when he could have been enchained by so many things — hatred, resentment, adultery, and wealth, among other things. Each time God freed him, we see that he was then able to enter the next phase of life God had planned for him
… The late Festo Kivengere, a dynamic evangelist and Ugandan Anglican Bishop of the diocese of Kigezi, was exiled during Idi Amin’s regime. I once heard him ask the question,
“What can you preach to the Ugandans who have suffered incomparably and lost everything [due to Amin] and now feel in complete bondage?”
His answer was: “The only thing you can preach is the resurrection. That he whose power overcame the greatest of evil forces can help them overcome.” There is no question that the power of the resurrection became the theme of Bishop Festo’s life and message.”
On the Middle East, and views of Christians on suffering and difficulties there, Paul notes:
“… Christians in the Middle East have been profoundly faithful. They have carried an unbroken witness to the Christian faith — often under intense persecution — since the day of Pentecost. Throughout the centuries God’s people have remained in those Middle Eastern cities, enduring sporadic outbursts of violent persecution and lingering oppression from many sources. ….
If there is one thing that stands above all else about these forgotten Christians, it is their perseverance. They keep on keeping on and have much to teach us about persevering and enduring in the midst of life’s difficulties.
In the West we do not use the words “perseverance”, “endurance” or “persistence” often in our Christian vocabulary. … We often prefer to focus on seeing something take place immediately, looking for victory, a way out, healing or recovery. All of these elements have truth in them. But I have been amazed to see how often the words “persevere”, “endure”, or “persist” occur in Scripture. …
Hebrews 12, is essentially about perseverance. … Christians in the Middle East are focused on the finish line, enabling them to endure and remain in the race despite all the sufferings they have experienced. They live with daily conflicts of one sort or another.
It is no surprise then to see how many Middle Eastern Christians love the book of Revelation. They often quote from it. Throughout Revelation, the phrase “to him who overcomes” is used. At the end of the book, when John writes about the New Jerusalem, we are told
“He who overcomes will inherit all this” (Rev 21:7). ….
I will never forget the time I spent with a Protestant pastor … For years he has been summoned by the secret police for interrogation. This often happens in the most inconvenient times such as late at night or just before an international trip. Yet as he shared these frustrating occurrences, it was obvious how much he genuinely cared even for the police. He loves his interrogators and has sincerely befriended them. He knows them by name and is concerned about their families. He even knows the desserts they like and sometimes, when summoned to the police station, takes to them desserts that his wife has made. The police do not know how to handle his kindness. Most strikingly in the midst of — or perhaps as a result of — these difficulties, he is absolutely radiant and does not have an ounce of anger or bitterness within him …”
— Source: Paul-Gordon Chandler, God’s Global Mosaic, IVP Books, 1997, 2000, Chapter 5 and Chapter 2.
“Keep struggling against hate and resentment. Always confess the struggle goes on and the battle is not over. At times you will have the upper hand, at times you will feel beaten down. Although it is extremely difficult, never let hatred completely overtake you. By the power of God the struggle will go on until the day comes when you begin to count more victories than defeats. Never stop trying to live the commandment of love and forgiveness. Do not dilute the strength of Jesus’ message: do not shun it, do not dismiss it as unreal and impractical. Do not cut it to your size, trying to make it more applicable to real life in the world. Do not change it so that it will suit you. Keep it as it is, aspire to it, desire it, and work with God for its achievement. Remember that so often it is those who have suffered most at the hands of others who are capable of offering forgiveness and love”
— Naim Stifan Attek, a Palestinian Christian priest
(as quoted in Paul-Gordon Chandler’s book in the chapter on Christians in the Middle East)
Pls kindly read the the book God’s Global Mosaic, on further insights from other parts of the world :-).
Another book worth reading:
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, IVP Books, 2012.
Biblical perspectives from Native North American tribes, the First Nations people,
here’s one example (addressing a Western evangelical audience):
“The Natural and the Supernatural: Native people do not have a split view of reality.
One of the ideas that is expressed again and again by Native cultures is that their sacred ways are inseparable from the ordinary.
Most evangelical Christians whether they realise it or not, have compartmentalized worldviews,
whereas most Indian people have integrated worldviews.
Western culture tends to compartmentalize life. Religious activity is often kept separate from all other areas, making religion just one segment of life.
For Native people religion is a way of life.
In Western mentality there is the sacred and the secular,
a natural verses spiritual split of reality. …
… Contrary to popular belief, not all Native beliefs are spiritistic, pantheistic or animistic. Most North American tribes were in fact monotheistic, believing in one universal, absolute being who furnished moral guidelines for their conduct and who motivated every living thing. The Lakota/Sioux called him Wakan Tanka, or “Great Spirit”.
Someone with a gnostic Greek or Western worldview, when confronted with the biblical account of Balaam’s talking donkey (see Num. 22:28-30) would question whether or not a donkey could actually talk. Because we know donkeys can’t talk, it must be assumed that the author was not speaking literally but metaphorically or allegorically.
However, the classic Hebrew or Native would be more concerned with what the donkey had to say rather than whether or not she could actually talk.
An American Indian would not have been especially surprised had a tree spoken to him, like the burning bush that spoke to Moses. A Native’s belief was integrated into his daily life, with the Creator always present and manifest in all things. However, many Christians would say that any native who believes a tree can talk must be practicing animism, spiritism or pantheism, although Jesus spoke directly to the winds and the waves and they heard Him and obeyed (see Luke 8:24,25)
Instead of dividing our lives into sacred/spiritual and secular/natural compartments, as Christians we would all benefit by seeing our faith as central to everything we do.
We would stop viewing our employment situations as secular, non-religious and Sunday mornings as our spiritual activity.
Jesus has called us to be His followers 24/7
— every hour of the day, every day of the week.
We are spiritual beings living in this physical world.
— Richard Twiss, One Church, Many Tribes, Regal books, 2000, chapter 4.
(for other examples, please read Richard’s book)
A note on our own cultures of who we are:
“We see God working in terms of Jewish culture to reach Jews,
yet refusing to implore Jewish customs on Gentiles.
Instead non-Jews are to come to God and relate to Him in terms of their own cultural vehicles.
We see the Bible endorsing then, a doctrine we call biblical sociocultural adequacy
in which each culture is taken seriously
but non advocated exclusively as the only one acceptable to God.”
— Charles Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness, Orbis Books, 1996.
Biblical perspectives from Mexican-Americans
“The first Easter I spend in La Villita (Chicago), I saw up-close my Mexican-American neighbor’s powerful identification with the suffering of Jesus, especially on the cross. …. The reenactment of the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Suffering”), which takes place in every Mexican barrio on Good Friday, was vibrant, dramatic and a vital expression of faith to my neighbors.
At a place like Whitworth College, very far removed from the suffering of the margins, my study of the redemptive work of Christ seemed to emphasize Jesus’ suffering “for” us as something that had very little to do with our lives today.
Here (amongst Mexican Americans), the fact that Jesus was willing to suffer “with” us, as a suffering servant while he redeemed us, was quite powerful.
Unlike the exclusive focus on the resurrection that most middle class evangelicals tend to emphasize, a strong connection and preoccupation with the suffering of Christ was clearly seen as significant element of God’s redemptive intervention. Somehow, on the cross Jesus not only offered redemption and forgiveness for our sins, but he also demonstrated absolute solidarity with every man, woman and child who had ever experienced extreme suffering, rejection and humiliation. “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15)
— Noel Castellanos, Where the Cross Meets the Street, Inter-Varsity Press, 2015, pg 84,85.
One more example,
“At a recent study group I heard a man announce that Jesus was a man with a message of grace. No great sermons on judgment from Jesus , he said. Jesus preached grace and forgiveness and love.
“Hear, hear, ” the group said. That’s the Jesus we know and love.
“Well,” I said, “I’m certainly very partial to grace. And Jesus did usher in a gospel of forgiveness, that’s for sure. But what are we to do with all his parables of judgment”
“What parables of judgment?”, they asked.
I went through several of Jesus’ stories where the main character was under some impending judgment and facing condemnation (the Sheep and the Goats; the Shrewd Manager; the Parable of the Talents, etc) and the group fell silent.
They’d forgotten about those stories, they said.
“Forgotten”? Or never heard them in the first place?
We must be careful about caricaturing Jesus to suit our current sensibilities.
He’s far too complex for that, and so is His kingdom.”
— Michael Frost, Seeing God in the Ordinary, A Theology of the Everyday, Hendrickson Publishers, 2000, pg 107,108.
In conclusion, fellowshipping with a diversity of people can enrich our reading of the Bible and our worship of God, as we work towards understanding each other better, and how we can bless one another.
Be open to listen to fresh perspectives, and explore things we’re not accustomed to hear. (like tasting a foreign cuisine).
As seen in the examples mentioned, we can hold a Biblical view, … and still remain open-minded, broad-minded, and curious;
thereby, avoiding being bigoted or ethnocentric.
In cross-cultural missions, refrain from thinking “we’re going over there to teach them”, … when in fact, there’s much we can learn from others, if we’re humble to receive or perceive by observing and by engaging with others from other cultures;
resulting in all of us being enriched, edified, and glorifying the Lord for His wisdom.
(here’s one missionary’s humble experience of what he learned from the poor (click here))
” .. I have had the privilege of working with Christians throughout the world. This has made a deep impact on my spiritual life and growth. The exposure to the variety of Christian traditions around the world has served as a unique stimulus in clarifying and deepening my own Christian life and worship.
… More than anything these experiences have demonstrated to me how Christianity worldwide is a divine mosaic, with each piece being a different cultural expression of the Christian faith, and the whole portraying the beauty of God’s character as perhaps nothing else can. It is in our continual learning from these many cultural expressions of Christianity, that our own faith can be made more complete.
… It is important that we build cross-cultural relationships”
— Paul-Gordon Chandler, God’s Global Mosaic, Introduction
Like the author of the study on the prodigal son, practice active listening in honesty and humility;
i.e. listening that improves mutual understanding,
… rather than half listening, half thinking about our response.
Respect the other person as a colleague, … explore further their views,
and always check the Bible.
“Many doctrinal disagreements come from an inherent assumption that each person does or can have the whole picture of truth. … We must be constantly aware that
although we have a divinely inspired Bible,
we do not have divinely inspired theologies — not Luther’s, not Calvin, not Strong’s, …”
— Berkeley Mickelsen & Alvera Mickelsen, Understanding Scripture, Chapter 13
…. they listened eagerly to Paul’s message.
They searched the Scriptures day after day
to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.
Acts 17:11 (NLT)
Check the scriptures thoroughly when the Bible is used to justify issues or behavior.
Read the Bible first-hand ourselves;
note the details in phrases & words within each passage in the Bible,
and the original context and historical background of the passage.
Also under which covenant: old or new?
Is this consistent with the character of Jesus?
“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason … my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
— Martin Luther
When communicating across cultures or age-groups,
lets be mindful that our listeners may not see what we see,
or empathize with our point of view.
Hence, as in corporate presentations, one of the first things to do is
– “Know your audience“,
respect the audience.
(eg. Paul customised his sermons to different audiences in Acts)
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Matthew 5:9 (NIV)
Peacemakers who sow in peace
reap a harvest of righteousness.
James 3:18 (NIV)
Let us therefore make every effort
to do what leads to peace
and to mutual edification.
Romans 14:19 (NIV)
Hatred stirs up conflict,
but love covers over all wrongs.
Proverbs 10:12 (NIV)
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:
Everyone should be quick to listen,
slow to speak
and slow to become angry,
20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
James 1:19,20 (NIV)
Social location: race, gender, age, nationality, economic class, political affiliation, etc
With regards to Nathanael remark upon first hearing about Jesus:
So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
This fulfilled what the prophets had said:
“He will be called a Nazarene.”
Matthew 2:23 (NLT)
Parable of the Prodigal son
Luke 15:11-32 (NIV)
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinnedagainst heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your propertywith prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
by 林弟兄, bro Lim
September 10, 2016