What to do when the Bible offends your cultural sensitivities

Excerpted from a sermon by Tim Keller.

1) Consider the possibility that the Bible text doesn’t teach what you think it teaches.

As a young man, Keller was upset by the way the Patriarchs in the book of Genesis treated women, with the particular regard to the customs of polygamy and paying of bride-price. And then he read The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter, an expert in ancient Jewish literature. In this book, Alter points out that there were two widespread institutions in the middle-eastern cultures of that time, namely polygamy and primogeniture. When you read Genesis, in every generation, polygamy wreaks havoc. Similarly, in every generation, God favours the younger son over the older (Abel, not Cain; Jacob, not Esau, etc). God was not-so-subtly subverting culture. Therefore,the Bible is doing quite the opposite of upholding these institutions.

2) Consider the possibility that you’re misunderstanding the text because of your cultural blinders.

Keller uses the example of slavery to flesh out this point. Citing Murray Harris’s book, Slave of Christ, he points out how slavery in the Greco-Roman world was very different from that practised in recent centuries.  To mention a few, there was no distinction of slaves from non-slaves on the basis of race, and no segregation. Slaves were often highly educated and many earned enough to buy their freedom, resulting in the fact that slavery wasn’t a lifelong condition. The Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit slavery, but in reading Philemon, you can see how Paul dealt with the slave-master relationship. [I recommend John Piper’s article How Paul Worked to Overcome Slavery].

3) Consider any unexamined assumption of superiority of your cultural moment.

People from different cultures may have different problems with different aspects of Biblical teaching. Some may bristle at its teaching on sex, while others may feel that those teachings don’t go far enough, for example. There are beliefs that our grandparents held that we find abhorrent today; our grandchildren will probably feel the same way about some of what we consider self-evident truths.

In conclusion, I’ll mention Keller’s thought experiment: If the Bible really came from God, and wasn’t the product of any one culture, wouldn’t it offend every culture in some way?