Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Does Your Faith “Cave In” to Culture? I Hope So.

faith and culture

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Every once in a while people disagree with me. I know. Shocking. What kind of a sick, twisted world do we live in, anyway?

I hear the following from time to time, and so might you:

“Instead of following the Bible, you’re just caving into culture.”

I often hear this, for example, when evolution is the topic:

“The Bible says ‘Adam and Eve’ were created by God as the first humans, but you say science is right about evolution. You’re letting that influence what the Bible says. You are caving in.”

The overall point these criticisms are getting at is that we shouldn’t let “culture” influence our view of God. I get what that criticism is aiming at: don’t just make God into a mirror image of your own culturally conditioned ways of thinking.

The problem, though, with this mindset is that the biblical writers are deeply, thoroughly, unmistakably, conditioned by the time and place—by their “here and now.”

To cite examples would be, in effect, to cut and paste the Bible into a blog post, which would probably constitute some sort of copyright violation. But one of the more striking examples (at least to me) is how casually the Old Testament authors speak of Israel’s God, Yahweh, that mirrors divine attributes older than Israelite religion.

  • Israel’s God is called, among other things “El,” the name of the Canaanite high god.
  • Yahweh “rides on the clouds”  (Psalm 68:4), which is a military title given to the Canaanite storm god Baal.
  • In Genesis 1, God establishes order in the cosmos by dividing/defeating the waters of chaos, as in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite myths.
  • God brings a massive flood to punish humanity, likewise in keeping with older myths.
  • Like the gods of the surrounding nations, Yahweh is a warrior who (rather mercilessly) fights for his people.

There are more examples, like I said, but these are enough to make the point. How the ancient Israelites described and thought about God reflects the religious climate of their time and place.

Also striking is a related point: how casually the Old Testament speaks of other gods as actually existing.

  • Israel’s God is something like a chairman of the board, overseeing the activities of other divine beings (as in Job 1-2 and Psalm 82).
  • The exodus story—specifically the 10 plagues—is a battle between the gods of Egypt and Yahweh, where Yahweh “executes judgment” on them (Exodus 12:12).
  • God’s greatness is expressed in terms of comparison with other gods (as in Psalm 95:3)
  • If the Israelites worship other gods, Yahweh will become “jealous” and punish Israel (Second Commandment).

We could go on here, too.

So, are the biblical authors “caving in” to culture, or are they speaking of God in the only way one could, according to current ways of thinking about reality?

That’s a rhetorical question. The Israelites had no other way of talking about God other than the language of their here and now. Of course, they didn’t just mimic, say, Mesopotamian creation and flood stories in their entirety, but neither did they expose those stories as worldly fictions unworthy of their God.

They shared a general worldview with their neighbors, and their God-talk reflects that fact.


Is God Jealous?

Actually, the Christian faith owes a thing or two to Judaism “caving in” to Greek culture in the century or two before Jesus.

When Christians think of God as a supreme mind, logical and consistent; as the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent One, they are following a pattern established by Judaism as it was influenced by Greek culture, not so much the Old Testament.

Greeks were pretty sophisticated, intellectually speaking. They invented philosophy, geometry, science, and democracy, and they did pretty well for themselves in the areas of art and architecture. These were the people who moved into the Jewish neighborhood.

Of course, the Greeks weren’t from another planet. Like Jews and other religions of the time, they had their own religious beliefs and rituals for connecting with the divine realm. But unlike Jews, this didn’t keep the Greeks from calculating the curvature of the earth, explaining the physical world around them in terms of natural causes, building aqueducts, or discussing whether humans have free will or if everything is predetermined.

We can well imagine Jews feeling a bit out of their element—maybe intimidated and even shamed by their own story, which began in slavery, continued with exile, and made absolutely zero contributions to philosophy or science.

The sacred story of their people and the God they worshiped had to be defended, and that meant making some adjustments.

For one thing, Greek philosophers thought the idea somewhat ridiculous that the Greek gods were as human-like as the old myths made them out to be—with their petty emotions, vindictive behaviors, uncontrolled sexual urges, the fact that they had bodies, lived on a high mountain, and held meetings on a mountain.

Maybe we shouldn’t blame Jews for being somewhat self-conscious and defensive about how similarly human-like their God appears in their sacred text—Yahweh has a body, gets angry and vindictive quickly, changes his mind, lives on a mountain, and moves about from place to place like any creature does.

This apparently bothered them enough to make some changes even in their sacred Scripture—or more accurately, in the Greek translation of their Scripture (conventionally referred to as the Septuagint).

For example, in Genesis 6:6, which still troubles readers today, Yahweh says that he was sorry and grieved at having created humans (because they kept sinning, which led God to drown everyone). How can someone the Jews claim to be the true God, high and above all the gods of Greece and then Rome, seem so indecisive, not to mention prone to reactive humanlike emotions?

And so the Greek translation simply gets rid of that idea altogether. Instead of being sorry, the Lord thought deeply; instead of grieving, he pondered. Now God is in very Greek-like rational control of the whole process. God isn’t taken off guard and doesn’t change his mind.

So maybe the accusation “You’re caving into culture” is misplaced. Maybe people have faith have no other way of speaking of God than the language and thoughts of their time and place.

And maybe, just maybe, God is just fine with that. If you think of the Bible as “God’s word,” then I think you would have to agree.

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