When I talk with people who do overseas presentations or work in cross-cultural communications settings, I’m told that the most difficult thing to translate from one culture to another is humor. Humor depends upon common reference points in order to make sense. The moment you have to explain it, you’ve defeated the purpose. You might get a polite chuckle or two, but the joke is lost. Understanding common reference points is crucial to any stylized form of communication (poetry, musical lyrics, allegories, metaphors, allusions, even visual art – in fact, almost anything more sophisticated than an instruction manual or inventory list). Unfortunately what is common (assumed) for one group of people, is often unfamiliar and misunderstood by another. I frequently find myself at a loss when in conversations with groups of older friends (say 15 yrs or more) who are able to rattle on effortlessly while referring to cultural touchstones that were part of their formative years. They understand everything implicitly because they lived it. Meanwhile, I need a history lesson.
A similar dynamic is at play when we read the Bible. Here we deal with a different time in history, different cultural norms, different languages – all of which point to a different set of assumptions, “givens,” shared by author and audience. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, the Bible is no mere “instruction manual” or simple inventory – its a varied collection of literary forms written over many centuries to and for people in a variety of settings. The challenge for us now, is that we lack the convenience of a present companion who can explain the “insider” information to us. This explains why sometimes an instructor can take 30 minutes to “just scratch the surface” of a 20 word section of Biblical text, and why the original recipients rarely needed any explanation at all – we need a history lesson, they were living it (although, to be fair, Paul often entrusted the delivery of his letters to a trusted companion who could clear up any confusion – for what its worth, the currier and elucidator of Romans was a woman, Phoebe).
The reality of our distance from the writing’s origin shouldn’t scare us off from studying the Bible in general or Romans in particular- there is much that can be gained from even a quick survey reading of the material, enough to transform a life. It does mean, however, that we should approach the material with a healthy dose of humility as we acknowledge that we don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle in place with respect to the setting of any particular book. But bear in mind, a serious student of the Bible, must also be a serious student of history – even more than a student of philosophy or theology. Why? Because it is the Christian claim that the underlying substance of Scripture is Incarnational in nature. In other words, we don’t believe that God merely presents us with ideas and concepts that will help us get along if we keep them all in place (although, we are indeed presented with many good ideas and concepts). Rather, we believe that the Bible presents us with the reality of the God who personally acted within specific human history – dealing with real people in particular settings – without a sense of these particulars, much of the power and significance of His activity is lost. Furthermore, because we believe that God has acted in real time and space in faithful response to His promises to mankind and all of His good creation before, we have confidence that He continues to do so now and into the future.
Up next: a brief glimpse into the historical background of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Pastor Jim Kushner