Introducing Culture Shock and the New Testament

At first glance, our world seems “smaller” now than ever before. It is so small (studio audience: “how small is it???”) that Disney even wrote an annoying ear-worm of a song. Don’t click here, and you won’t hear it. Television, Internet, and movies all give us exposure to cultures and places we’ve never been in direct contact with before. That’s perfectly fine, though it may give us a false sense of familiarity to these other cultures. We may think we’ve got a better handle on the world than we actually do. Just because you read a lot of manga and say desu all the time doesn’t mean you could move to Japan tomorrow and get along just fine. Fully encountering another culture (not just a two-dimensional, fictional portrayal of one) means more than just different food and clothes. It goes deeper than even learning another language. We’re talking about some of our most basic views on the world. This is called culture shock.

Culture shock comes when we run out of a frame large enough to understand what is happening. For example, we have a “script” that we use when we greet each other. Let’s say you are at work and you see a co-worker. The co-worker smiles says, “Good morning, [your name],” and you say the same. You pass each other in the hall as you go about your business. No big deal. If you saw the same person ten minutes later and he or she smiled and said, “Good morning, [your name],” you would probably be taken back by this. That’s not how we normally greet each other after the initial greeting. If it happened a third time, you’d probably start avoiding this person. Why? Because your co-worker broke the “script.” The same rules apply for casually asking how someone is doing, or meeting a stranger. You talk to a loved one differently than you talk to someone taking your order at a drive-thru window. These examples are tiny, but they demonstrate how ordered our social interactions are. We haven’t even gotten into things like perceptions of fairness, what’s considered rude or polite behavior, or appropriate treatment of the opposite sex. Walking into a situation where a common action is misinterpreted as extremely offensive would be horrible, since you probably don’t even know what you did wrong. Suddenly, only having a taste for local food or pop music isn’t as important as you thought.

For those of us who grew up in a typical American-Christian culture, the so-called “world of the Bible” (a uselessly simplistic term) probably seems very comfortable. We’d probably be best friends with guys like David or John the Baptist, right? But, if you loaded your Sunday school class into a scienced-up DeLorean and went back in time, things might be a little different than you imagined. First of all, a DeLorean only holds like two people. Better take the weekly prayer meeting instead! [Cue sad trombone sound.] If you dropped off a bunch of Americans anywhere near the middle east today, we’re talking about major culture shock. Now go back 2,000 years. Is it going to be any better or worse? (Hint: worse.) There are language barriers, differences in basic religious assumptions, gender views, et cetera et cetera…

In his book, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, sociologist Bruce Malina writes, “Perhaps the first and largest step that a contemporary American can take toward understanding the Bible is to realize that in reading the Bible in English (or even Greek), we are in fact listening to the words of a transplanted group of foreigners. It takes only the ability to read to find out what these foreigners are saying, but it takes far more to find out what they mean” (Malina, 2). I’m not saying that the Bible should only be handled by experts. I am saying that we cannot treat the Bible like it was written by modern Americans. It often takes serious thought to understand the meanings behind what is said. I’ll not even hit 800 words in this post—there’s no way I’ve done this subject justice. But Dr. Malina’s work was really crucial to me in understanding the world of Jesus and the early Christian communities. I happened to think of this book a few days ago and my wheels started turning. The scholarly group he has been part of in the past, The Context Group, might be the subject of a future post. No promises.

For Bruce Malina’s book, see Amazon or Google Books.

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