This week, I want to talk about something that I've let stir around in my heart for awhile, waiting on the right words and the right angles to come. It's an important issue, one that calls upon the heart of Christianity itself and presents as a potential stumbling block to many. It's the idea of cultural context - that is, in what world are we believing? And how does that world (or how should that world) shape our belief?
This was started by the Bible I'm reading this year. If you've been with me previously, you know that I'm reading a rather complicated version of the text this year in which almost every single thing is footnoted. You've heard me complain about translators who have felt the need to dumb down the biblical text because they don't think we'll read even the English words correctly unless they tell us exactly how to do that, and they've even eliminated almost all of the rhetorical questions and opted instead of emphatic statements. This Bible has been, on a translation level, frustrating for those reasons (and more).
But what's also happening in this Bible is that the translators have felt the need to point out places where the biblical text is a lot like the texts of surrounding cultures. When they have been unable to determine what a word was in the Hebrew, they go to foreign, non-Israelite languages and pick close words and decide that it must mean something like that. There is an overwhelming number of footnotes in this Bible that say things like, "According to a Ugaritic myth..." or "It is common is ancient Near Eastern cultures of this time..." or "Egypt tells a similar story about a...." and so on and so on.
The problem is that the translators simply leave the comparisons as they stand. The way they've presented this, there is no uniqueness to the story of God. It is just the same as all other stories that all the other peoples told about all their other gods. This is, then, just the story of a people we happen to feel a kinship with about a God we happen to believe in.
It is no better and no different than all of the other myths that are out there. There is no fundamental difference between what happens in Israel and what happens on Mount Olympus (the mount of the gods).
Do you see where this is a problem?
Our God spends His entire story trying to show us how different He is from the idols of the nations. He tries to set Himself apart by demonstrating His love, His grace, His kindness, His presence, His...everything. And we need this. We need to know that there is something substantially different about our God. We need to know that this is not just another myth that a people has made up.
Then, we have these translators who want to tell us all the time where our story is essentially exactly the same as all of the other stories that we have been told are just myths. How, then, are we ever supposed to believe that our story is more than that?
But our story is more than that. Our story is unique among the stories of the gods....and the peoples. The things that our God has done for us are completely unlike the things that any other god has ever done for its people. So to imply that we've just borrowed the words and the ideas and the stories from other peoples and their gods...is extremely problematic. So many Christians have enough trouble believing in God without the added burden of being told explicitly, even by its scholars, that the Bible is 'just another story, like all the other stories.'
At the same time, unless we are explicit about what makes our story different, then that's sadly just the truth - maybe it's not. Maybe our story is just the same as all the other stories around us. Maybe we are just like our culture.
There's a lot to unpack in this, so stick around. This is important.