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Published Date: March 7, 2012

Published Date: March 7, 2012

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“Culture is Everything” … “Everything is Culture”

When teaching a class on biblical texts about women, I once made the mistake of saying, “Culture is everything.” I found out several days later that some students–one in particular–took strong exception to my comment.

The student thought I meant that culture is the most important factor in biblical interpretation. Thinking that I had said such a thing, his selective listening skills kicked in and he began to believe that I promote that idea that when applying an ancient biblical text to a modern situation, the first and foremost factor is to consider how that text would best serve our present culture, regardless of how it served its own.

What I actually meant, and what I should have said, is that “Everything is culture.” I intended to point out that culture is an ever-present reality in the contexts of the biblical writers, in our own contexts, and in every place and time in between. While the word “culture” is especially difficult to define, we know it when we see it. This is true because we see it every time we open our eyes.

Consider this cluster of examples: I am right now typing on a computer. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I’m organizing pixels on a screen rather than actually typing. I am looking at the screen through reading glasses purchased at Wal-Mart. I’m sitting at McDonald’s accessing free Internet and sipping Diet Coke even though I’m neither on a diet nor thirsty. To my right a young man is watching ESPN. The air I am breathing has been polluted in various ways and then run through an air conditioner; as it enters my nose I am greatly helped by the antihistamine I took this morning. In a few hours I’ll be on a date with my wife at O’Charley’s, even though we’re not Irish. And on and on it goes.

So, if someone asks me to define “culture,” I would say, “culture is everything.” I don’t say this as a philosopher who has crafted the perfect definition, rather as a biblical interpreter who wants to emphasize that the all-permeating influence of culture must not be overlooked as we seek to understand and apply biblical texts. If we claim to set aside our cultures as we encounter the Bible, we fool ourselves.