I mentioned earlier my view of the Bible as counter cultural and is concerned with the kingdom of God as opposed to our human kingdoms and cultures, whatever those may be. The Bible can be, and should be, an incredibly challenging document and we should be humble enough to open ourselves to its counter to our personal cultural affinities.
Yet as counter cultural as the Bible is, it is still incredibly cultured. It is a document that comes from humans and from human culture, not out of the sky and not merely through human penmanship Because of the “humanness” of Scripture its counter culturalness must often be found as it is not always often seen.
The problem with having a cultural document means you also have to wade through its humanity to find the kingdom of God in Scripture, it is much easier to see the culture of humanity. I don’t think there would be a problem with the culture that is found in Scripture if time stood still and we lived several hundred years ago. If that were the case, then finding and arguing for that culture would be fine, because it would be the culture that we live in and we would not have the advances in reason, theology, philosophy and science that we have now. In that case the prescribed culture would be counter cultural, because the composers’ intent was to help others live into and live out the kingdom of God within the Greco-Roman/Ancient Near Eastern culture. Unfortunately, the kingdom of God in that culture is not the kingdom of God in this culture, nor can it be. Culture is not a static thing, it is merely a manifestation of human activity and humans are by nature not static, so culture is dynamic. Therefore, I also do not think that the kingdom of God is static, at least not on this present earth. As culture and humanity progress, we could always be doing more to love, serve and treat each other with justice and mercy. Thus, any progress made toward the kingdom of God will always, at least it always has, revealed more areas where progress needs to be made and sometimes it even creates those areas. We have always been working to move from our culture to the kingdom and I do not think the Bible presents anything different.
If the Bible were different then we’ve got a a terribly rebellious Christian culture on our hands, from the conservative side of the spectrum all the way to the liberal side, because there are definitely lifestyle prescriptions that are not followed.
Often times the argument against not following these prescriptions, such as head coverings for women, is that they are cultural and no longer apply. I would agree with this, but if this argument isn’t fleshed out (which it often isn’t) it is simply dismissive and not based in good theology or interpretation. The argument is akin to someone claiming themselves to be a law abiding citizen, but also disregard the speed limit because they’re “just going with the flow of traffic”. A better argument would be to abide by the spirit of the law by insuring safety on the road, which would be impeded by going the speed limit forcing other drivers to avoid you, which then impacts other drivers.
Further, to claim that only certain parts of Scripture are culture specific but other parts are not is saying only some of the truths are timeless whereas other truths are time dependent. Such an argument opens the door to allowing other parts of Scripture to deemed as culture and time dependent. Instead, I would argue that either all of Scripture is culture and time dependent or none of it is. Either women should start wearing covers on their heads during worship, or we do a bit of interpretation to get at the purpose of Paul’s argument and solution, which is an option available to the rest of Scripture as well.
I prefer the second solution, if you hadn’t already guessed that. I believe it can better open our eyes to the kingdom of God and be truly counter cultural. If we begin with the belief that the Bible is coming out of a culture and being written to address issues in that culture and also believe that the writers are seeking to better transform their current culture with the kingdom of God, then we can read into that work and perhaps grasp their intent, purpose and vision of the kingdom of God.
This might also shield Jesus, Paul, Peter, Isaiah, David, etc. from unwarranted attacks as to why they didn’t do more to fix the culture they were in and make it more humanitarian by being more vocal about the wrongs done to slaves, impoverished, women, etc. Though they may have had the Spirit, they nonetheless were human and engrained with their humanity and culture. How then could they then be blamed for not doing more? Criticizing Paul for seeking to reform the slavery system and not abolition would be similar to criticizing the Susan B Anthony for wanting only voting rights for women and not full equal rights or something akin to Title IX.
The writers of Scripture have a vision of the kingdom of God, which is different from their current culture, but it’s not so far removed from the culture that they come across as having peered through some crystal ball. They cannot, nor did they, institute a vision for the kingdom that is a milennia or two removed from them, but what they did do was work to reforming what they saw as unjust and unholiness in relation to what they knew was just and holy.
The Bible is counter cultural, but also incredibly cultural. Going to Scripture with this fact in mind can help us see how its writers were bringers of the kingdom of God to their culture and in spite of being formed and shaped by that culture. It can then teach us how to bringers of the kingdom in a similar way. We know the canon of thought on what God desires, so we can also know what is unholy, unmerciful and unjust in this world, but we do not know what will be later revealed as unholy, unmerciful and unjust that is not seen as such today. We can impact what we do know and perhaps that will reveal what we do not yet know and then we can work to changing that.
Though in my eyes the Bible is a counter-cultural document, and puts forward the counter-cultural kingdom of God as an ideal. It is just as much a product of culture, it comes from several cultures and addresses those cultures. So it may be counter-cultural, but it is counter cultural in a very cultured manner.