Can Americans Truly GET the Bible?

Maybe our perspective on Life makes it difficult (impossible?) to really understand these ancient stories, poems, and insights.

Maybe our perspective on Life makes it difficult (impossible?) to really understand these ancient stories, poems, and insights.

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

One evening I was sitting around a campfire with my wife, brother, and sister in law. The sun had gone down, we were enjoying the warmth of the flame and one another’s company, when suddenly a large vehicle pulled in the vacant spot across from us, blinding us with its headlights.

A man and woman hopped out of their suburban and quickly started working on setting up their massive tent in the dead of night. At one point we heard the man shout out, “okay, I’ve got this end, you grab that, and let’s both go clockwise with it,” presumably trying to orchestrate which direction he and his wife should walk so as to properly assemble their sleeping quarters.

Maybe I was a tad annoyed at their late night arrival and obnoxious high beams, but I chuckled to myself and said, “that’d be funny if one of them envisioned clockwise one way, and the other a different way, so that they ended up going in opposite directions and crashed in to each other.

The trio around the fire sorta looked at each other, then me, quizzically. “What are you talking about,” one of them asked, “if one goes one way, and the other goes another way, then they’re obviously not both going clockwise. One would be going counter-clockwise.”

“Well no,” I argued back, “if you’re looking down at the tent from above, then clockwise is in this direction” I motioned with my hands, “but imagine lying on the ground and looking up at the tent, then clockwise is going this direction,” I spun my hands the other way. “Hence, they’d run in to each other. And that would be funny.”

“But why would anyone picture clockwise from lying on the ground looking up?!” they insisted. “That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Sense or not, it’s at least conceivable, and I think it would be funny.”

Reader, you don’t have to pick a side — theirs or mine — but regardless, my point remains: depending on which perspective you’re looking from (or at), your sense of which direction is “clockwise” will be different from another perspective. You could both be going clockwise, technically speaking, but still end up crashing in to each other.

The other day I was re-reading thru “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman. In it, he explains the necessity of seeing the Christian story through the lens of the marginalized, the disinherited, those on the underside of power.

This was, after all, the perspective of Jesus. A poor minority man living in a country owned by the powerful empire of Rome.

In fact, this is the perspective of most of the characters in the Bible.

To put that differently, the Bible was created by individuals who were on the underside of power, who were in some ways oppressed, marginalized, or otherwise a minority in their context (with the notable exception of material from David and Solomon during the height of Israel’s Kingdom).

And the world looks differently when you’re on the bottom looking up.

The world looks differently when you’re poor, when you’re an outsider, when you live under the boot of empire, amidst systems designed to keep you in check.

By contrast, many of us (here in America, at least) are participants with and for today’s modern Empire. Many of us are the powerful, the majority in some regards. Many of us are wealthy (relatively speaking) and don’t live under the oppressive boot of Empire.

Certainly within our culture there exists a range of dynamics and hierarchies that weave together various power structures and privileges (so that people like myself, middle class straight white man, consistently sit atop most of the hierarchies through no effort of my own), but even many of those near the bottom of today’s hierarchies might still be higher up in some regards than the Israelites of old or the earliest Christians.

What’s my point?

The Bible was written from one perspective, but when WE read it, we SEE it from another.

Like my imaginary scenario of crashing tent-installers in the night, such a situation harbors immense potential for disaster.

As long as we keep reading (and trying to interpret) through our own western, post-enlightenment, American perspectives, we will continue to not only miss the point of so much of the stories and teachings and wisdom in the Bible, but we run the very real risk of getting it so wrong that we do harm to ourselves and others.

We must open our ears and eyes and hearts and minds to the scholarship and insight of those who’s perspectives more closely align to those on the outskirts, the fringes, the margins.

It’s not to say that people like myself, higher up in the privilege and power rankings, have nothing to offer. It’s just that most of the preaching and scholarship has been done by perspectives very unlike those from the world of the Bible. Has been done by powerful men atop society’s hierarchies.

To better understand those who originally told these ancient stories, passed on the hard-earned wisdom, and collected the insights and teachings of ancient enlightened figures, we must hear from the voices and learn from the perspectives of marginalized people.

I confess I only came to this realization within the past five or six years, and I know I have a long way to go still. But I’m committed to it.

May we be more intentional to listen to and learn from our queer siblings, our black and brown siblings, our poor and third-world siblings.

May men learn from women.

May Christians learn from other religions.

May those in steeples learn from those on the streets.

Because the perspective from which you see a thing matters.

And if it matters, then it matters.