American culture shapes how Americans read the Bible

Words are prompts or triggers for our minds to construct meaning. If someone says they are going to a wedding our minds furnish the event of a wedding lots of information about the rituals and dress of those involved. The same words may sometimes prompt different meanings depending upon the culture. For instance, take the statement in Genesis 1 that “God created the earth.” What came to mind when you read the word “earth”? I suspect you thought of a blue dot against a dark background (an image from space) or of a globe rotating in space. Modern readers think of the earth as a planet revolving around the sun. Ancient peoples, however, thought that “earth” meant the land upon which we live and it is not moving. When they looked at the sky they distinguished between stars that did not move and stars that did move (such as Venus). Moving stars were called “planets” and the earth was definitely not a planet since it does not move.

When Americans read that God is a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5) they usually embarrassed that this is in the Bible since it seems to put God in a bad light, as immature. The word “jealous”triggers a negative meaning for us while it did not for ancient Jews because they understood the word to mean the reaction to a perceived wrong when someone possessed something they should not. 1 Timothy 2:9 says for women to “dress modestly.” What came to mind when you read that?

For Americans the word “modestly” prompts the meaning of how much of the body is covered by clothing. It is interesting that the verse specifically says that Christian women are not to wear “expensive clothes” when gathering for worship. Paul specifies economic modesty but American Christians typically think it is fine to wear expensive clothing to church so long as women dress sexually modestly. These examples show that we may understand a text differently from Christians in other times and places.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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