The Strangeness of Scripture

suprised lookIn a tribal area in Asia, a group in the tribe were shown pictures of four objects: a hammer, a saw, a hatchet, a log. They were then asked to say which did not fit together. We Westerners would typically put all the tools together, because we have been taught to analyze and classify things in abstract categories. So to us the log is the odd one out. Because oral societies like this Asian tribe tend to think in concrete-functional terms, this group placed the saw, the hatchet, and the log together, because you could make something with them. The hammer was did not fit because it was no good without a nail.

I heard that illustration years ago from a Westerner with a Ph.D. who worked as an educator among Asian tribal groups. Pamela had been explaining to me about some of the worldview differences she had to consider, between herself and the tribal peoples, if she hoped to teach effectively there inside their worldview for their good.

The illustration, of course, reminds us of obstacles that must be overcome for effective understanding between different peoples in the field of cross-cultural communication. As I noted in a recent post, when we are confronted with the wisdom (the way of seeing life and living in it) of a different culture, it may seem so alien to us that we cannot imagine how any reasonable person would think and act like that.

This is also a huge issue for anyone encountering what to them are foreign-sounding places in the text of Scripture. Some (if not much) of the Bible, of course, is pretty straightforward. Only the most self-serving of adults would pretend to have trouble with: do not steal; do not kill; do not commit adultery; love your neighbor; turn the other cheek; forgive those who sin against you; and many other obvious statements or narratives.

But, truth be told, there are places where the Bible does speak strangely to us. They are puzzling: why did so and so say that, or what’s that all about? I think most people would assume that this occurs because the Bible was written thousands of years ago and by people whose culture was very different from ours today. Of course. But there is more to it than that.

It is not just that the Bible is an ancient text from foreign culture. The Bible also has a way of seeing life and living in it (a wisdom), which includes how I think and reason, and at times its way can be quite different from our way. When I encounter that strangeness in the pages of the Book, I take it as a sign that my own way of seeing, thinking, and reasoning (about God, life, myself, others, my theology, whatever) probably needs a course correction.

woman and childrenTake, for instance, Jesus’ parable of the wages. Crowds had been following Jesus, and because he had been healing people’s sicknesses and teaching about the kingdom of God, they interpreted it as sure sign “that the kingdom of God [the Messianic age] was going to appear at once.” I don’t we think should  judge them for this, unless we Christians today want to first judge ourselves for more than a hundred years of failed attempts to pinpoint the time Jesus will return.

Knowing that they were thinking this way, Jesus tells them the parable of the wages. Because this is one of Jesus’ longest parables, I’m not going to cut and paste it here in a short post. But do read it (Luke 19:11-27). What I want to offer is this. If asked today about the coming of the kingdom of God, or the Messianic age, or what Christians typically refer to as the imminent return of Jesus, many Western Christians would trot out their preferred eschatology about the end times, or the rapture, or a sophisticated millennial view, or perhaps some homespun theory in a book they had just read or a film just seen. But not Jesus.

Jesus tells a long and involved story about what today we would call people making capital investments and earning their livings from them. In other words, Jesus responds to their faulty “religious” view about the Messianic age with a story about the importance of one’s stewardship in economic life. Let’s face it, to us that’s an odd way of reasoning. What in the world does earning a living have to do with the coming kingdom of God?

Where you find the Bible speaking strangely to you like that, it is speaking much more than because it’s old and cross-cultural or as a mere curiosity. Like Pamela, who had to get inside the worldviews of the various tribal groups she taught, we have to struggle with the strangeness of the worldview out of which the Bible came to us if that strangeness is to teach us for our good. It is indispensable to the renewal of our minds and to our discipleship to ask questions like: “Why is it given to us in that particular way, and does it have an interpretation for today?” Of course, it’s not often easy to puzzle it out. But we must not collapse mentally in the face the Bible’s wisdom: its way of seeing life and living in it.

The parable of the wages, apparently, is meant to knock in the head a faulty view the crowd held about the coming Messianic age – which they assumed would make life easier for them – that it was going to appear immediately. After all, two of the king’s city managers in the parable do not retire when they get huge raises from the king. They are then placed in charge of additional cities. So now they’ve got more, not less, work to do! Jesus seems to be saying: don’t conclude anything about when the kingdom of God will appear (see also Acts 1:6-7). Instead, get on with earning your livings and be faithful to your employers as you do.

electron microscopeThat is as far as I have gotten in puzzling out the parable, and it leaves much else about the parable foreign to me, even after consulting some good commentaries, which did not deal with the why of the economic answer from Jesus in the context of the coming kingdom of God. (If anyone has any insight about this, I’m all ears.)

The strangeness of Scripture arises from the wisdom (the way of seeing life and living in it) out of which it came to us. Struggling to gain gaining insight about the hows and the whys of a text when we encounter its strangeness would enable us to be more fully taught by God’s Holy Spirit. We would then see, think, and act more clearly and consistently biblically and to relate more effectively and communicate more believably to those who hold to different wisdoms. For those concerned about the changes and challenges we face today as individuals, as churches, and in society, it’s worth the struggle.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by George Thomas, middle image by The Iglesia’s, lower image by EMSL, (permissions via Creative Commons).

Related posts: The series of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, which begins here, and this post on the hard but necessary work of thinking.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.