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Does Culture Shape Theology or Does Theology Shape Culture? (part 2)

We can all probably think of situations where both occur. Two weeks ago, I posed this question but I want to dig in a bit more.

The challenge is to recognize how our own culture might be shaping our theology.

Take for instance when Jesus enters Jerusalem a week before he’s executed – we call it the Triumphal Entry, although I’m not sure why we call it that – Jesus hadn’t recently conquered the Romans even though that’s exactly what the crowds, waiving their palm branches, wanted. (In case you didn’t know, the palm branch was the symbol of the revolutionary Zealots).

The Jewish crowds were eager and anxious for a revolution that would overthrow Rome. Their culture anticipated that the coming Messiah would be the one to do it.

How did they get there?

Ever since the Babylonian exile (605 BC) the Jews were without their own Kings and kingdom (they were subjugated by foreign nations), without their own land (they lost political independence), without their own language (Aramaic replaced Hebrew), without their own temple (which was destroyed in 586 BC), and they were without their own identity (they were no longer called “Israel”, but “Jews”).

So, for 500+ years of being subjugated by foreign nations the Jewish people, particularly the religious leaders, developed a theology of divine payback – a theological system that longed for the day when God would deliver them from the hands of their foreign overlords. And it was through this system that they interpreted scripture.

We can see how their culture of “divine payback” shaped their theology in the Pseudepigraphal book of the Psalms of Solomon which states how their coming Messiah, the Son of David, would “destroy unrighteous rulers.”

“See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David,

to rule over your servant Israel.…

Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers,

to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles who trample her to destruction…”

(Pss. Sol. 17:21–22)

Additionally, at the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the revolutionary crowds remembered Zechariah 9:9 which states that their king would come “mounted on a donkey.” And they passionately waived their symbols of revolution in expectation that Jesus would overthrow Rome.

But, He did not.

They were guilty of reading scripture through a predetermined lens. We do that when we go to scripture with the sole purpose of supporting a certain position on end times, or divorce, creation or salvation theology etc. We read it, but we read it selectively. We overemphasize certain aspects that fit with what we want it to say, and ignore or downplay other aspects of a passage. The revolt ready crowds simply had no use for the rest of Zech. 9 which states that their coming king would be “humble” and that he would end war, not start it.

It is difficult to read scripture without such a bias. One simple phrase that helps me read more objectively is this:

What would the original author want the original audience to do or think differently as a result of reading this passage?

It can be unsettling to read scripture as it is – without our predetermined expectations or manipulations (and I do realize that complete objectivity eludes us). When was the last time you read scripture and were hit with the reality that one of your cherished beliefs might not find support in the passage you expected it to? Are you willing to change your theology because a sound interpretation of the text calls for it?

It’s both terrifying and liberating.

So, yes, we need to be aware that culture does shape at least some of our theology. It certainly shapes how we interpret it. Keeping the original audience in mind helps us prevent our own agenda from co-opting the text.


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