Culture and Biblical Worldview

by   |   nclaxton@bjupress.com   |  

At BJU Press, we have a driving passion to produce educational materials that shape a biblical worldview in students. This is, of course, a pressing need for all Christians—to have our minds increasingly molded by biblical norms. Yet our present evil age seeks to force our thinking into a mold of worldly values at variance with Scripture (Rom. 12:1–2).

When we think about forming a biblical worldview, we often consider our culture’s most blatant examples of antagonism toward Christianity—naturalistic evolution, relativistic ethics, sexual profligacy, materialistic greed. But we sometimes fail to realize how pervasively the culture impacts our thinking. Even innocent features of the culture can cause twenty-first-century Americans to misread and misapply Scripture.

I’m guilty as charged.

I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in a burgeoning suburb of Indianapolis. My friends, with few exceptions, were middle-class. They were Republicans. They were white. Just as I was.

Since then, I’ve had many experiences that have opened my eyes to other ways of looking at the world. But most earth-shattering has been my marriage to a Chinese national.

My wife, Jasmine, spent her childhood with her grandparents in a rural village in China. In junior high, she joined her parents in Saipan, a remote island in the Pacific. While Saipan is a U.S. commonwealth, traditional Westerners make up a very small percentage of the population. Saipan has a significant Chinese minority that hold tightly to their language and cultural distinctions.

There may be no two cultures in the world that are more different from one another than China and the United States. The U.S., a civilization a few centuries old, is dominated by a rugged individualism. China, a civilization a few millennia old, is driven by a sense of family and community.

Reading the Bible through a Western lens has its advantages. The concept of a personal relationship with God, for instance, is relatively easy to communicate to an American audience. When I taught Chinese young people in Saipan, I found that many of them believed that they were Christians simply because their parents were Christians. Their understanding of salvation involved identification with a group rather than personal trust in Christ as Lord and Savior.

Yet in most respects, the lifestyle of ancient Jews bears more resemblance to Shanghai than Charlotte.

In China, it is still common to find multiple generations under the same roof. The home where my wife grew up has three generations—her grandfather, her aunt and uncle, and her two-year-old cousin. And there’s no societal stigma in this arrangement.

Abraham was seventy-five years old when God called him to leave his father’s house (Gen. 12:1, 4). The concept seems ludicrous to an American—can you envision a seventy-five-year-old in his pajamas playing X-Box in his parents’ basement? Even when we account for the longer lifespans of patriarchal history (lifespans that would make Abraham middle-aged), we find a radically countercultural narrative.

Consider the cultural context

But consider this story from an Asian cultural context. Abraham isn’t a spoiled brat mooching off his parents because he can’t hold down a job. Rather, he’s a typical middle-aged Ancient Near Eastern husband, driven by duty to father and family. The shocker is not that Abraham was still living at home but that he chose to leave home.

If we step back from our individualistic cultural lens, we force ourselves to ask some challenging questions about the biblical text. Does leaving father and mother to join a spouse necessarily mean geographic separation (Gen. 2:24)? Is a young person exempt from the command to obey his parents when he turns eighteen (Eph. 6:1)? What does biblical “nurture” look like after one’s children reach adulthood (Eph. 6:4)? Does the “unruly” behavior of an adult son or daughter have any bearing on an elder’s fitness for ministry (Titus 1:6)?

I’m not dogmatic about the answers to any of these questions. But perhaps our cultural lens sometimes blinds us to the divinely intended implications of the biblical text. And perhaps people from different cultures, people who don’t look exactly like we do, might reveal blind spots in our understanding of Scripture.

Remove cultural blind spots

Removing these blind spots requires us to know people—people from a diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Unfortunately, as social media widens our contact with the world, it also forces us to retreat from the world. Our culture finds more pleasure in Facebook than in face-to-face interaction.

But hop on a plane sometime and visit a rural village in China. Observe four generations living comfortably under the same roof. Watch as neighbors weave seamlessly in and out of one another’s homes. See children playing in the streets, blissfully unaware of what constitutes a “stranger.”

Yes, it’s a fallen culture, just as all cultures are fallen. But maybe, just maybe, your visit might lead to a richer understanding. A richer understanding of what it means to be a son or daughter. A richer understanding of what it means to be a father or mother or husband or wife. A richer understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

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Nick Claxton

Nick Claxton is an editor for BJU Press and a PhD student at BJU Seminary.