An old man smiled and said, “Welcome to my bookstore. Are you—” Martin nodded. The man looked at him, turned, and disappeared through a doorway. A moment later he was holding a thick leatherbound volume, which he set on the counter. Martin looked at the binding, almost afraid to touch the heavy tome, and read the letters of gold on its cover:
ON THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS
IN ONE VOLUME
CONTAINING A CAREFUL ANALYSIS OF ALL CULTURAL ISSUES
NEEDFUL TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE
AS DID ITS FIRST READERS
“You’re sure you can afford it, sir? I’d really like to let it go for a lower price, but you must understand that a book like this is costly, and I can’t afford to sell it the way I do most other titles.”
“Finances will be tight, but I’ve found knowledge to cost a lot and ignorance to cost more. I have enough money to buy it, if I make it a priority.”
“Good. I hope it may profit you. But may I make one request, even if it sounds strange?”
“What is your request?”
“If, for any reason, you no longer want the commentary, or decide to get rid of it, you will let me have the first chance to buy it back.”
“Sir? I don’t understand. I have been searching for a book like this for years. I don’t know how many miles I’ve driven. I will pay. You’re right that this is more money than I could easily spare—and I am webmaster to a major advertising agency. I would have only done so for something I desired a great, great deal.”
“Never mind that. If you decide to sell it, will you let me have the first chance?”
“Let’s talk about something else. What text does it use?”
“It uses the Revised Standard Version. Please answer my question, sir.”
“How could anyone prefer darkness to light, obscurity to illumination?”
“I don’t know. Please answer my question.”
“Yes, I will come to you first. Now will you sell it to me?”
The old man rung up the sale.
As Martin walked out the door, the shopkeeper muttered to himself, “Sold for the seventh time! Why doesn’t anybody want to keep it?”
Martin walked through the door of his house, almost exhausted, and yet full of bliss. He sat in his favorite overstuffed armchair, one that had been reupholstered more than once since he sat in it as a boy. He relaxed, the heavy weight of the volume pressing into his lap like a loved one, and then opened the pages. He took a breath, and began reading.
At the present time, most people believe the question of culture in relation to the Bible is a question of understanding the ancient cultures and accounting for their influence so as to be able to better understand Scripture. That is indeed a valuable field, but its benefits may only be reaped after addressing another concern, a concern that is rarely addressed by people eager to understand Ancient Near Eastern culture.
A part of the reader’s culture is the implicit belief that he is not encumbered by culture: culture is what people live under long ago and far away. This is not true. As it turns out, the present culture has at least two beliefs which deeply influence and to some extent limit its ability to connect with the Bible. There is what scholars call ‘period awareness’, which is not content with the realization that we all live in a historical context, but places different times and places in sealed compartments, almost to the point of forgetting that people who live in the year 432, people who live in 1327, and people who live in 1987 are all human. Its partner in crime is the doctrine of progress, which says at heart that we are better, nobler, and wiser people than those who came before us, and our ideas are better, because ideas, like machines, grow rust and need to be replaced. This gives the reader the most extraordinary difficulties in believing that the Holy Spirit spoke through humans to address human problems in the Bible, and the answer speaks as much to us humans as it did to them. Invariably the reader believes that the Holy Spirit influenced a first century man trying to deal with first century problems, and a delicate work of extrication is needed before ancient texts can be adapted to turn-of-the-millenium concerns.
Martin shifted his position slightly, felt thirsty, almost decided to get up and get a glass of water, then decided to continue reading. He turned a few pages in order to get into the real meat of the introduction, and resumed reading:
…is another example of this dark pattern.
In an abstracted sense, what occurs is as follows:
- Scholars implicitly recognize that some passages in the Bible are less than congenial to whatever axe they’re grinding.
- They make a massive search, and subject all of the offending passages to a meticulous examination, an examination much more meticulous than orthodox scholars ever really need when they’re trying to understand something.
- In parallel, there is an exhaustive search of a passage’s historical-cultural context. This search dredges up a certain kind of detail—in less flattering terms, it creates disinformation.
- No matter what the passage says, no matter who’s examining it, this story always has the same ending. It turns out that the passage in fact means something radically different from what it appears to mean, and in fact does not contradict the scholar at all.
This dark pattern has devastating effect on people from the reader’s culture. They tend to believe that culture has almost any influence it is claimed to; in that regard, they are very gullible . It is almost unheard-of for someone to say, “I’m sorry, no; cultures can make people do a lot of things, but I don’t believe a culture could have that influence.”
It also creates a dangerous belief which is never spoken in so many words: “If a passage in the Bible appears to contradict what we believe today, that is because we do not adequately understand its cultural context.”
Martin coughed. He closed the commentary slowly, reverently placed it on the table, and took a walk around the block to think.
Inside him was turmoil. It was like being at an illusionist show, where impossible things happened. He recalled his freshman year of college, when his best friend Chaplain was a student from Liberia, and come winter, Chaplain was not only seared by cold, but looked betrayed as the icy ground became a traitor beneath his feet. Chaplain learned to keep his balance, but it was slow, and Martin could read the pain off Chaplain’s face. How long would it take? He recalled the shopkeeper’s words about returning the commentary, and banished them from his mind.
Martin stepped into his house and decided to have no more distractions. He wanted to begin reading commentary, now. He opened the book on the table and sat erect in his chair:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The reader is now thinking about evolution. He is wondering whether Genesis 1 is right, and evolution is simply wrong, or whether evolution is right, and Genesis 1 is a myth that may be inspiring enough but does not actually tell how the world was created.
All of this is because of a culture phenomenally influenced by scientism and science. The theory of evolution is an attempt to map out, in terms appropriate to scientific dialogue, just what organisms occurred, when, and what mechanism led there to be new kinds of organisms that did not exist before. Therefore, nearly all Evangelicals assumed, Genesis 1 must be the Christian substitute for evolution. Its purpose must also be to map out what occurred when, to provide the same sort of mechanism. In short, if Genesis 1 is true, then it must be trying to answer the same question as evolution, only answering it differently.
Darwinian evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” Evolution is on philosophical grounds not a true answer to that question, because it is not an answer to that question at all. Even if it is true, evolution is only an answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” If someone asks, “Why is there this life that we see?” and someone answers, “Evolution,” it is like someone saying, “Why is the kitchen light on?” and someone else answering, “Because the switch is in the on position, thereby closing the electrical circuit and allowing current to flow through the bulb, which grows hot and produces light.”
Where the reader only sees one question, an ancient reader saw at least two other questions that are invisible to the present reader. As well as the question of “How?” that evolution addresses, there is the question of “Why?” and “What function does it serve?” These two questions are very important, and are not even considered when people are only trying to work out the antagonism between creationism and evolutionism.
Martin took a deep breath. Was the text advocating a six-day creationism? That was hard to tell. He felt uncomfortable, in a much deeper way than if Bible-thumpers were preaching to him that evolutionists would burn in Hell.
He decided to see what it would have to say about a problem passage. He flipped to Ephesians 5:
5:21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
5:22 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.
5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
5:24 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
5:26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
5:27 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
5:28 Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
5:29 For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
5:30 because we are members of his body.
5:31 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
5:32 This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church;
5:33 however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
The reader is at this point pondering what to do with this problem passage. At the moment, he sees three major options: first, to explain it away so it doesn’t actually give husbands authority; second, to chalk it up to misogynist Paul trying to rescind Jesus’s progressive liberality; and third, to take this as an example of why the Bible can’t really be trusted.
To explain why the reader perceives himself caught in this unfortunate choice, it is necessary to explain a powerful cultural force, one whose effect cannot be ignored: feminism. Feminism has such a powerful effect among the educated in his culture that the question one must ask of the reader is not “Is he a feminist?” but “What kind of feminist is he, and to what degree?”
Feminism flows out of a belief that it’s a wonderful privelege to be a man, but it is tragic to be a woman. Like Christianity, feminism recognizes the value of lifelong penitence, even the purification that can come through guilt. It teaches men to repent in guilt of being men, and women to likewise repent of being women. The beatific vision in feminism is a condition of sexlessness, which feminists call ‘androgyny’.
Martin stopped. “What kind of moron wrote this? Am I actually supposed to believe it?” Then he continued reading:
This is why feminism believes that everything which has belonged to men is a privelege which must be shared with women, and everything that has belonged to women is a burden which men must also shoulder. And so naturally, when Paul asserts a husband’s authority, the feminist sees nothing but a privelege unfairly hoarded by men.
Martin’s skin began to feel clammy.
The authority asserted here is not a domineering authority that uses power to serve oneself. Nowhere in the Bible does Paul tell husbands how to dominate their wives. Instead he follows Jesus’s model of authority, one in which leadership is a form of servanthood. Paul doesn’t just assume this; he explicitly tells the reader, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The sigil of male headship and authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.
Martin was beginning to wish that the commentary had said, “The Bible is misogynistic, and that’s good!” He was beginning to feel a nagging doubt that what he called problem passages were in fact perfectly good passages that didn’t look attractive if you had a problem interpretation. What was that remark in a theological debate that had gotten so much under his skin? He almost wanted not to remember it, and then—”Most of the time, when people say they simply cannot understand a particular passage of Scripture, they understand the passage perfectly well. What they don’t understand is how to explain it away so it doesn’t contradict them.”
He paced back and forth, and after a time began to think, “The sword can’t always cut against me, can it? I know some gay rights activists who believe that the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual acts is nothing but taboo. Maybe the commentary on Romans will give me something else to answer them with.” He opened the book again:
1:26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
1:27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
The concept of ‘taboo’ in the reader’s culture needs some explanation. When a person says, “That’s taboo,” what’s being said is that there is an unthinking, irrational prejudice against it: one must not go against the prejudice because then people will be upset, but in some sense to call a restriction a taboo is de facto to show it unreasonable.
The term comes from Polynesia and other South Pacific islands, where it is used when people recognize there is a line which it is wiser not to cross. Thomas Aquinas said, “The peasant who does not murder because the law of God is deep in his bones is greater than the theologian who can derive, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ from first principles.”
A taboo is a restriction so deep that most people cannot offer a ready explanation. A few can; apologists and moral philosophers make a point of being able to explain the rules. For most people, though, they know what is right and what is wrong, and it is so deeply a part of them that they cannot, like an apologist, start reasoning with first principles and say an hour and a half later, “and this is why homosexual acts are wrong.”
What goes with the term ‘taboo’ is an assumption that if you can’t articulate your reasons on the drop of a hat, that must mean that you don’t have any good reasons, and are acting only from benighted prejudice. Paradoxically, the term ‘taboo’ is itself a taboo: there is a taboo against holding other taboos, and this one is less praiseworthy than other taboos…
Martin walked away and sat in another chair, a high wooden stool. What was it that he had been thinking about before going to buy the commentary? A usability study had been done on his website, and he needed to think about the results. Designing advertising material was different from other areas of the web; the focus was not just on a smooth user experience but also something that would grab attention, even from a hostile audience. Those two goals were inherently contradictory, like mixing oil and water. His mind began to wander; he thought about the drive to buy the commentary, and began to daydream about a beautiful woman clad only in—
What did the commentary have to say about lust? Jesus said it was equivalent to adultery; the commentary probably went further and made it unforgiveable. He tried to think about work, but an almost morbid curiosity filled him. Finally, he looked up the Sermon on the Mount, and opened to Matthew:
5:27 “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’
5:28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
There is a principle here that was once assumed and now requires some explanation. Jesus condemned lust because it was doing in the heart what was sinful to do in the hands. There is a principle that is forgotten in centuries of people saying, “I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t harm you,” or to speak more precisely, “I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t see how it harms you.” Suddenly purity was no longer a matter of the heart and hands, but a matter of the hands alone. Where captains in a fleet of ships once tried both to avoid collisions and to keep shipshape inside, now captains believe that it’s OK to ignore mechanical problems inside as long as you try not to hit other ships—and if you steer the wheel as hard as you can and your ship still collides with another, you’re not to blame. Heinrich Heine wrote:
Should ever that taming talisman break—the Cross—then will come roaring back the wild madness of the ancient warriors, with all their insane, Berserker rage, of whom our Nordic poets speak and sing. That talisman is now already crumbling, and the day is not far off when it shall break apart entirely. On that day, the old stone gods will rise from their long forgotten wreckage and rub from their eyes the dust of a thousand years’ sleep. At long last leaping to life, Thor with his giant hammer will crush the gothic cathedrals. And laugh not at my forebodings, the advice of a dreamer who warns you away from the . . . Naturphilosophen. No, laugh not at the visionary who knows that in the realm of phenomena comes soon the revolution that has already taken place in the realm of spirit. For thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. There will be played in Germany a play compared to which the French Revolution was but an innocent idyll.
Heinrich Heine was a German Jewish poet who lived a century before Thor’s hammer would crush six million of his kinsmen.
The ancient world knew that thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. They knew that purity is an affair of the heart as well as the hands. Now there is grudging acknowledgment that lust is wrong, a crumbling acceptance that has little place in the culture’s impoverished view, but this acknowledgment is like a tree whose soil is taken away. For one example of what goes with that tree, I would like to look at advertising.
Porn uses enticing pictures of women to arouse sexual lust, and can set a chain of events in motion that leads to rape. Advertising uses enticing pictures of chattels to arouse covetous lust, and exists for the sole reason of setting a chain of events in motion that lead people to waste resources by buying things they don’t need. The fruit is less bitter, but the vine is the same. Both operate by arousing impure desires that do not lead to a righteous fulfillment. Both porn and advertising are powerfully unreal, and bite those that embrace them. A man that uses porn will have a warped view of women and be slowly separated from healthy relations. Advertising manipulates people to seek a fulfillment in things that things can never provide: buying one more product can never satisfy that deep craving, any more than looking at one more picture can. Bruce Marshall said, “…the young man who rings at the door of a brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Advertisers know that none of their products give a profound good, nothing like what people search for deep down inside, and so they falsely present products as things that are transcendent, and bring family togetherness or racial harmony.
It has been asked, “Was the Sabbath made for man, or was man made for the Sabbath?” Now the question should be asked, “Was economic wealth made for man, or was man made for economic wealth?” The resounding answer of advertising is, “Man was made for economic wealth.” Every ad that is sent out bears the unspoken message, “You, the customer, exist for me, the corporation.”
Martin sat in his chair, completely stunned.
After a long time, he padded off to bed, slept fitfully, and was interrupted by nightmares.
The scenic view only made the drive bleaker. Martin stole guiltily into the shop, and laid the book on the counter. The shopkeeper looked at him, and he at the shopkeeper.
“Didn’t you ask who could prefer darkness to light, obscurity to illumination?”
Martin’s face was filled with anguish. “How can I live without my darkness?”