Culture At Large

The 21st Century Bible


Zalm at From the Salmon has an excellent post on Christianity and free market capitalism (via a badchristian blog) and I encourage you to go read the whole thing. One part of the piece in particular caught my eye; Zalm excerpts the following quote from Ted Haggard of New Life Church and the National Association of Evangelicals from a recent Christianity Today story (bold emphasis mine):

"Free markets have done more to help poor people than any benevolent organization ever has.”

But Jesus made no mention of free markets, Haggard is reminded. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all and give to the poor.

"But Jesus was in the 1st century,” Haggard answers, “and we’re in the 21st century.

“The Scripture is the Word of God, and nothing else is. But if the Scripture says we have an obligation to the poor, then you have to take what we’ve learned in the last 2,000 years to help poor people not to be poor. If the Scripture says we have an obligation to the oppressed, then you have to take what we learned in the last 2,000 years to help oppressed people. I maintain that we learned more about those subjects in the 20th century than in any other single century.”

Zalm's reaction follows:

Did Haggard really just say that Jesus would have responded differently to the rich young ruler if the conversation had taken place in the 21st century? That Jesus recommended selling everything and giving to the poor because it would be two millennia before he could give the market-based answer he really wanted to give? Which would be what, exactly?

I understand that Haggard is talking about applying 21st-century solutions to an intractable and age-old problem like poverty. And I don't think that Ted Haggard is the type of Christian who views the Bible as a nothing more than a culturally-bound text that has little relevance to our modern lives. But there's something disconcerting about the ease with which he seems to suggest Jesus' words were incomplete when facing our contemporary situation.

Everyone who reads the Bible does so through some interpretive lens that helps us to make sense of the text. Christians recognize the cultural gap between the time the books of the Bible were written and our own era and, to some extent, we all make determinations on what is an eternal truth in the Bible and what are instructions specific to a time and place that, while inspired by God, don't apply to our lives directly. (How many of us follow the prohibitions in Leviticus against wearing clothing woven of two materials or eating pork and shellfish? Do any women nowadays eschew wearing their hair in braids or donning gold jewelry as Paul instructed?) Although I'm not sure whether Haggard is suggesting that the Bible would be different if it were written today in a capitalist society, it's clear that he sees one aspect of Jesus' message as directed toward a first century audience that is different from listeners today.

I've seen Christians (on Think Christian and elsewhere) who regularly rationalize that parts of the Bible don't apply to our current situation. On a wide selection of issues ranging from homosexuality, gender roles, and a six-day creation to poverty, divorce, or prisoner abuse, Christians constantly argue about whether statements in the Bible are relevant to our 21st century reality or not. We all agree that the Bible is the inspired word of God but we all differ on what that means for us today and how we should act on it. We all know that the Bible can guide us in our daily lives but, like Ted Haggard and his support for the free market, we all have to interpret and make guesses to bridge the gap between an ancient era and our own.

So how do you interpret the Bible? How can we apply a 2,000+ year old book to our modern lives without projecting too much of our contemporary framework onto it? Where do we draw the line in determining what parts of the Bible apply to us today and what parts can teach us about God without being specific instructions for our daily lives?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Faith