The white stuff came again in Langenargen today, but it couldn’t make up its mind whether to thicken into real snow or wimp its way into sleet. I think the sleet won.

I have been reflecting again on how my perception of people, events, places and ‘issues’ can be challenged by a new perspective. Yesterday I mentioned (again) Helmut Schmidt’s observation that politicians need ot be able to speak at least two foreign languages in order to be able to examine their own culture and assumptions from the perspective of an ‘outsider’. When you sit ‘inside’ another culture and look through its lenses (cultural, linguistic, philosophical, historical, political, etc.), you begin to relativise your own – or, at least, get them into some sort of proportion.

What is relatively crucial to one culture might be unimportant in another. Seeing it through the latter’s lens might leave me still thinking it is important, but at least I will have checked it out against the bigger picture of the world’s realities. For example, the state of the local scout hut might be a huge issue locally; but, in the light of the devastation in Haiti, it becomes a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.

This constant readjustment is vital in stopping us becoming obsessive about trivia. And it applies to more than just politics and scout huts.

I have just read Kenneth Bailey‘s excellent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I was first introduced to his writings 25 years ago when I read Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey spent 40 years living among Middle Eastern people and tried to learn to read the Bible as it would be read through their eyes. After all, it is their book. He discovered that much of our western reading of (for example) the parables of Jesus is off the mark when put up against people who instinctively understand and ‘feel’ the cultural stuff underlying them.

The book is excellent and easy to read – with only a few bits that made me question his assumptions. It deserves a wide readership – especially among those who dare to preach this stuff. Its subtitle is Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Reading this reminded me of an exercise John Bell (of the Iona Community) did with over 100 of my clergy about six years ago. I had become Bishop of Croydon and wanted to bring my clergy together for encouragement and fellowship. I wasn’t sure I was the person to do this, but asked John to do a ‘study day’ with us – at least I could make the thing happen. John agreed and led a stimulating, challenging and hugely encouraging day that sent many of us back to re-read our Bible afresh.

In the afternoon he handed out a white envelope to everyone. Each envelope had on it a letter: A, B, C or D. Before we were allowed to open the envelope John told four stories of characters in the Gospels: Mary at the wedding at Cana, the woman with the heamorrhage, the child Jesus ‘put among his disciples’, and one other (which age has removed from my memory).

Having told the stories, he then asked us to open our envelope and ask ourselves whether the person on the black & white postcard-photograph was what the character in the story might have looked like. There was a silence, followed by laughter. One person near me had a picture of a crabby-looking Middle Eastern woman in her fifties, with few teeth, but a determined look on her face. Another had a beautifully back-lit photo of a youngish woman in lingerie looking wistfully towards the camera.

The point was obvious. We bring to our reading of the Bible so many assumptions before we even get to the text. We grow up with images that colour our reading and (sometimes) prevent us properly understanding what the text is trying to say. For example:

  • Why do we see Mary as the perpetual 16 year-old, waif-like and dressed in lovely blue, when at the wedding in Cana she was clearly in her late forties or early fifties and had been widowed for a couple of decades or so?
  • Was the child a boy or a girl? Was he/she a clean-looking and well-clothed ten year-old or a scruffy three year-old urchin?
  • Why did I always assume that the woman who had been bleeding for almost a couple of decades was elderly and unattractive? Why couldn’t she have been young-ish and beautiful – sexy even?

My/our reading of these characters – and, therefore, the meanings we brought to the texts – had all been conditioned by unconsciously imbibed images and assumptions about them and what they were about. These ‘filtered’ images shape the way we read the text, think about their meaning, form our theology or reinforce our prejudices about what Jesus is all about.

This is why one of the Bible verses that really stands out and haunts me (as someone who takes the Bible with the utmost importance) is John 5.39:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me…

In other words, those who think they stand closest to the Scriptures are in most danger of missing the point. It was true for the Pharisees and I think it remains true for me.