Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes (4) – Individualism & Collectivism

Misreading Scripture with Western EyesAfter a two-month hiatus, including a month of holiday in the U.S., it’s time to get back on track as I walk through Randolph Richards’ and Brandon O’Brien’s, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. The text is basically an introduction to the art of hermeneutics, or how to interpret Scripture.

Here’s a brief recap of my first 4 posts:

  • Preview of the book
  • Chapter 1 – Issues above the surface: mores (the fundamental moral values of a group that go without saying)
  • Chapter 2 – Issues above the surface: race & ethnicity
  • Chapter 3 – Issues above the surface: language

Knowing the first part of the book dealt with issues above the surface (using the illustration of an iceberg), the second part of the book, chs.4-6, shall involve aspects of understanding Scripture that go just below the surface.

The first aspect is one that is of great interest to me: individualism and collectivism.

It’s probably no great surprise to state that the western (or developed) world is enveloped with a very individualistic worldview. Our culture is shaped by words such as these: I, me, my, mine.

This culture has also deeply affected the church of the west. All of our songs are wrapped in the language of me, rather than us. Our taking of the eucharistic table of the Lord (communion) is heightened by each one making sure they have no unaccounted personal sins before taking our own thimble full of juice/wine and a smidgen of bread.

When the teaching/sermon is finished, individuals assess it through a marking scaled of personal benefit. Serving opportunities are taken up or rejected in accordance with our own personal assessment of our gifts and talents.

Such was not the case until a few hundred years ago. Before that, everything was much more communal and collective. This includes the life and culture of biblical times as well.

Richards and O’Brien point this out through a couple of ideas that we carry about the Scripture:

  • We have the idea that Joseph and Mary travelled alone to Bethlehem in preparation of giving birth to the Christ child. However, they would have been travelling with two large family clans – his and her’s. This is why they would have easily misplaced the 12-year old Jesus, as reported in Luke 2.
  • We view Paul as the great lone-ranger missionary, heading on excursions across the Roman empire to preach the gospel – mainly by himself. However, he always travelled and worked with a team – from Barnabas to Luke to Timothy to Silas to Apollos to Priscilla & Aquilla to Epaphroditus and a whole host of others. Not to mention that many of his letters were co-written with others, not just from his own pen (see 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1-2; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1)

In all, there can be a kind of underlying motto in the west: Me, Jesus and my Bible.

As long as I’ve go those three, everything ok will be.

But this is very foreign to the life of God’s people as displayed in Scripture, as well as for the first 1500 years following Christ. Interestingly enough, this perspective on life is alien to those cultures outside the west today.

In contradistinction to our primary perspective, what we find throughout the pages of Scripture is that of collectivism, community and togetherness.

And so we have created a consumer-based, free market economy in regards to spiritual life and the church. The authors describe it this way:

If we’re not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church as something like a health club. We’re members because we believe in the mission statement and want to be a part of the action. As long as the church provides the services I want, I’ll stick around. But when I no longer approve of the vision, or am no longer being fed, I’m out the door. This is not biblical Christianity. (loc 1136)

Don’t like the current health club. There’s one 3 minutes down the road. Don’t like the food at this restaurant. There’s a similar place just across the street. Don’t like the worship team’s sound in this church. There’s another church on the other corner complete with a 8-person band.

We have embraced the slogan of Burger King: Have it your way!

Richards and O’Brien also take time to point out the plural perspective of the word you in Scripture. In the old Greek, one could differentiate between the singular you and plural you. In the south of the U.S., we would say ya’ll; and in the north they would say you guys. But our English translations don’t help us very much. This is seen in one particular passage, which is highlighted in the book:

Paul asked the Corinthians: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). We typically understand the singulars and plurals in this verse backwards. In the original Greek, the you is plural and temple is singular. Paul is saying, “All of you together are a singular temple for the Holy Spirit.” God doesn’t have millions of little temples scattered around. Together we make the dwelling for the Spirit. (loc 1147, emphasis his)

This is underlined as well in other places such as Eph 2:21-22 and 1 Pet 2:4-5. There is one body, one house, one temple rather than millions of bodies, houses and temples.

And taking it a bit further than what Richards and O’Brien point out, the biggest kicker is that, far above all other aspects of the life of the church (our songs of worship, our eating at the Lord’s table, our sermons and our serving), the individualistic nature comes roaring through our perspective on salvation.

Salvation take place through our personal prayer of acceptance that Jesus died for me personally and is now becoming my personal Lord and Saviour.

You see the recurring theme: personal.

Despite this strong individualistic view, salvation was actually something of the community of God’s people – and it actually was historically based in the lives of his people rather than simply an abstract concept that would ultimately happen at an abstract future date. Salvation was the deliverance of God from the enemy of God’s people, which we know ultimately comes through the real, historical, actual life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah, Jesus.

For those who want to focus on a substitutionary atonement, which I think is biblical (along with other views), the interesting thing is how communal and collective the substitution was. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection wasn’t in the place of you and I personally. It was on behalf of the community of God’s people. Hence why the statement, ‘If you were the only person in the world, Jesus would have died for you personally,’ might actually miss the point of the narrative in Scripture.

Listen, I’m not negating anything personal about our worship, our Bible reading and study, nor even of our salvation. But there is a shift taking place in the west, one that is desperately needed, where we are seeing the personal flow out from the primary focus of communal, rather than vice versa. Our life in God will no longer mainly be seen as a ‘me, Jesus and my Bible’ concept, but rather as a communal activity of knowing God together, worshipping together, sharing in the table together, being saved-delivered together, studying together, serving together, making the evangel of Christ known together. And it won’t just be about the community of today, but the communion of saints for thousands of years.

So, with our Bible reading and study, whenever you see the word you (and you don’t have the Hebrew & Greek to access), try plugging in the words you all. I think it will be an enriching experience. Try in every page to notice how the people were involved together – families, communities, cities, nations. Practise utilising the collective lens as you relate to the body of Christ.

I think we, the church as a whole, will benefit as we shift from an extreme personal-individualistic perspective. As with all things, we need balance. So it’s a both/and. However, perhaps as I suggested, we should let the personal flow out of the collective. I believe this is the ancient path our forefathers travelled centuries ago. Maybe that tradition isn’t so bad.

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