In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared Byas takes a deep dive into the origins of the modern mindset and how understanding our own context impacts our study of the Bible. Join Jared as he explores the following questions:
- In our own study of the Bible, why is it important to understand our own context?
- Why is it necessary to admit that we have a historically situated context?
- Does the understanding of the gap between the world of the Bible and the world that we live in render the Bible irrelevant to our time? (pg 4)
- What is the lens through which we read the Bible? What is our context?
- Why does Jared want you to watch Mean Girls for homework?
- How can a grasp on your own context and a grasp on the Bible’s context allow us to have a healthier relationship with the text?
- What examples of conflict can be found between the spiritual and political factions of Christendom?
- What influence did the Roman Catholic Church have over ethics, knowledge, authority, and identity during the Dark Ages?
- How was right and wrong behavior determined during the Middle Ages?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jared Byas you can share.
- “It’s crucial that we ask what was happening in the past few hundred years of our current reality that has shaped us, that has shaped how we think about God and Jesus and the Bible. I think we fail to understand how important it is to understand our context.” @jaredbyas
- “When we understand where we’ve come from and where we are, we can approach the Bible in a healthier way.” @jaredbyas
- “When we understand our own context, we actually start to see how different our world is from the world of the Bible and the ancient mindset.” @jaredbyas
- “When we admit the gap between the world of the Bible and the world that we live in, we can better respect the Bible for what it is instead of constantly trying to make it fit into a world where it doesn’t fit.” @jaredbyas
- “We should be learning who we are and who we are not, and learning what the Bible is and what it is not. And it’s in respecting those differences and those boundaries that we can find a healthy relationship with the text.” @jaredbyas
- “When we don’t know who we are and how our history and context shapes us, we can easily start to read into the Bible what isn’t there.” @jaredbyas
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- B4NP Episode: Ep. 143: Martha Himmelfarb – Second Temple Judaism and Apocalyptic Literature
- Book: Genesis for Normal People
- Book: Exodus for Normal People
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Today, we’re going to be talking about “The Making of the Modern Mindset.” That’s a phrase we’ve used a couple of times here on the podcast and we’ve contrasted some of our current thinking with this modern mindset, so I thought it’d be good to do a deep dive. Maybe one or two episodes, we’ll do a little series here, but before we get there, let me back up. I’m going to make the case for why this is an important conversation.
So, one of the foundations of Bible study is understanding the Bible’s context. If you’ve been around Christianity over the last fifty years, Christians in the West especially, you’ve heard this term understanding the Bible’s context. And it’s true, that is to say, if we want to understand the Bible on its own terms, we have to understand the world in which it was written.
If we want to understand the book of Matthew, say, we need to understand the important ideas in Judea in the first century and where those ideas came from because they influenced how Matthew was written. They aren’t cut from a completely different cloth. It’s a product of its own time. Or, if we want to understand the book of Genesis, we have to understand how people in the Ancient Near East, that is the time and place where Genesis was constructed, what they thought about creation and God’s involvement in creation. Our Bible is a product of its time. The way that Jesus speaks in the Bible and the ways that Jesus interacts with people in the Bible doesn’t come from nowhere. His ideas and his interactions were influenced by his context, which has a history. When we read the religious books from a few hundred years before Jesus is born leading up the time of Jesus, we learn so much about how the New Testament writers thought about God and the world and it shapes how we read the New Testament and understand it on its own terms.
For instance, one of the biggest shifts of the last hundred years, which we’ve talked about on the podcast, was to see just how much apocalyptic literature influenced the New Testament. That’s the kind of books or the slant that we find in those books that we find in the New Testament. We don’t have time to get into what I mean by apocalyptic, it takes us too far afield, but go back and listen to Episode 143 with Martha Himmelfarb and that’ll give you a good introduction if you want to go back. This insight that much of the New Testament is influenced by apocalyptic literature came from looking at that literature at that time. That is, looking at the context, the literary context. What was being produced in the few hundred years before Jesus, what we would call the intertestamental or the Second Temple Period? The study of that time a few hundred years before Jesus has really shaped how scholars now see Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament.
But with all this emphasis on understanding the Bible’s context, I have a feeling that we’ve been missing something really important. I think maybe we’ve been missing how important it is in our study of the Bible to understand our context. That’s what I want to talk about today in this episode and a few future episodes when we talk about the making of the modern mindset. It’s our context. It’s the water that we swim in, the air that we breathe. And we’re, in some ways, maybe moving beyond. But we can talk about that later.
Unless we undergo a brain transplant and replace our brain with the brain of a first century Jew, we will always approach the Bible from our own standpoint, from our own context. In my case, this is from a 21st Century American/Western context. So, it’s crucial that we ask what was happening in the past few hundred years of our current reality that has shaped us, that has shaped how we think about God and Jesus and the Bible. I think we fail to understand how important it is to understand our context.
So, I want to just start this little series with a few reasons why I think it’s important that we start here and why we can spend as much time and find it valuable to spend as much time on understanding our context and the assumptions and influences we bring to the table as much as understanding the Bible’s context.
So, three reasons:
One – you might want to sit down for this first one – it helps us to see that we aren’t, maybe we aren’t the center of the universe, right? Audible gasp. I know. For us Americans, that sounds a little bit blasphemous, but it’s, you know, like the chopped frozen spinach I used to have to eat as a kid, hard to swallow, but probably good that I did. How we view the world isn’t just how it’s always been, but it’s been constructed and developed over centuries. This, for me, was a really important and difficult concept to grasp because in my tradition growing up, what we were taught was that knowledge was static. There’s one right way to view the world, Christianity gave us that right way and it’s pretty much how we’ve always thought about the world since Creation. And there’s been this through line for most of human history that’s the right way to view God, the right way to view the world, the right way to view science, history, technology, all these things. That was all there in some form. Sure, we used it differently to come up with cell phones and these things, but by and large, we’ve been always thinking about how the world works rightly and it just happened to be how I was taught how to think about the world. But that’s just not true. It’s been constructed and developed over centuries, like I said.
Our views of God and our views of the world aren’t universal. They’re not absolute. They are relative to our time and place. And sometimes there are definitely similarities and sometimes there are, though, differences. People haven’t always thought about the world the same way we do and some people in other parts of the world think about it differently right now, even today. But, if we don’t understand our context in history, we can easily make the mistake, as I did for so many years, of thinking that how we see the world is just how it’s always been. So, that’s the first reason this is important, it helps us to see that we’re not the center of the universe.
But secondly, it helps us to be aware of those influences. If we don’t admit that we have a historically situated context, if we somehow think that our beliefs about the world are universal, we are blindly accepting those influences. And don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of those influences are healthy. They’re helping us head in the right direction, so I’m not saying not to be influenced by our context, like we have a choice. But sometimes those influences might not be so healthy. Like for example, the nationalism that was so assumed in my Christian tradition growing up. Why not have an American flag in a sanctuary every Sunday? Why not do some of the things that we did? Not only why not, but I grew up understanding and thinking that everyone did that and that it was how it had always been and this was the only way to be Christian in the world.
Or, you know, to take it out of that context and just talk about maybe a silly but obvious example about how our context is historically relative and constructed is to think about the color pink. You know, for some people, they think that pink is a girls’ color as though pink was written into the fabric of the universe, into the very DNA, the warp and woof of all that is, pink was a girls’ color. I mean, I have friends whose family wouldn’t let their boys wear pink because they thought it would make them gay. But if we study our context, if we understand the history of these ideas and concepts, we see that for most of human history there was no gender associated with pink. It wasn’t on the radar. Even more, once there was gender associations made, which again wasn’t until the early 1900s, pink was consistently associated with boys, actually. There’s an article in a trade publication from around 1918 that says that this, and I have the quote. It says, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls.” Here’s the reason. Listen to the reason. “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” So, for many years, even when we started thinking about pink as a color for girls or boys, pink was decided to be for boys and blue for girls. It wasn’t even until the 1950s that having pink as a girls color dominated pop culture.
There are thousands of ways our culture and our context influenced us in similar ways to, you know, pink for girls. And how we think about what it means to be human, what God is like, how the Bible works, how to navigate the world well are all part of what we’ve been influenced by.
It’s important, then, that we are then a student of our world and our culture just as much as the Bible.
And, I would argue that’s not for our own well-being only, but it’s necessary for how we read the Bible well. It’s not just so that we get along in the world, that’s not a bad thing because we’re compromising with the world. It’s for our ability to read the Bible well. Which is my third part as I talk about why this is an important conversation.
To understand that it is our context and why it helps us read the Bible better is it, number three, point number three. It helps us reimagine the Bible for our own lives. When we understand where we’ve come from and where we are, we can approach the Bible in a healthier way. When we understand our own context, we actually start to see how different our world is from the world of the Bible, from the ancient mindset. For some that might be disappointing to hear. It might sound like I’m saying the Bible is irrelevant to our modern times or somehow that we’re better than. But, in fact, I don’t see it that this makes the Bible irrelevant for our lives, I see it as actually the opposite. When we admit the gap between the world of the Bible and the world that we live in, we can better respect the Bible for what it is instead of constantly trying to make it fit into a world where it doesn’t fit, you know.
The two questions we ask on this podcast over and over is what is the Bible and what do we do with it. And so, we need to understand what it is on its own terms. And, you know, if you’ve read Genesis for Normal People or Exodus for Normal People, we used the phrase “reading the Bible through ancient eyes,” through how they would have seen it. What’s their context? And so, we also then have to ask, “What is the lens through which we read our Bible?” and “What is our context?” and see those differences.
And so, the more we understand our own history and how we came to the beliefs and thoughts about God and the world that we do, we can better then focus and distinguish between our views of the world and maybe how the ancient people where the Bible came from, what their worldview would have been.
And, you know, this idea of needing to respect the differences rather than try to make either my life fit into the context of the Bible or making the Bible’s context fit into our world – tt reminds me of Mrs. George, Amy Poehler’s character from Mean Girls. If you haven’t watched it, you should, and you can talk about it and watch it as homework in understanding our context, right? It’s for science. Do it for science. But you can watch Mean Girls and Amy Poehler’s character thinks that the way to earn her daughter’s approval is to be the cool mom, which she interprets as trying to fit in with her daughter’s friends. She dresses like them. She talks like them. She tries to hang out with them and be just like them. The problem is she’s not them. She’s a middle-aged mom with, it sounds like, some deep insecurities. But her attempts are cringe, right? Just like me using the word cringe right there, because I’m not Gen Z, that’s not my context. But like Mrs. George, we try so hard to make our world fit the world of the Bible or vice versa, trying to make the world of the Bible fit into our world as though the only way it can be relevant is if we’re the same. I have just so many stories that come to mind, so many sermons, even that I preached of trying to “make the Bible relevant” and we’re, it seems like in churches, we’re often trying to break down those differences so that we can see the sameness between the world of the Bible and our world. But just like Amy Poehler’s character, I would argue the way to relevant, the way to be connected is on our own terms, to be who we are, and to find those similarities that are authentic and not make believe, not straining one for the other.
So, we should be learning who we are and who we are not. And learn what the Bible is and what it is not. And it’s in respecting those differences and those boundaries that we can find a healthy relationship with the text. And I often talk about reading my Bible in the context of a relationship because I just see so many parallels. And for me, it’s unhealthy if someone I’m dating, someone I’m married to, I lose myself in them. I no longer have my own interests. I no longer have my own friends or my own context, if you will, but I just give up all of myself and join that context and join them and have only their interests. And it wouldn’t be healthy for them to do that for me.
Instead, it’s how do we come together as individuals. And so, the same with the Bible. How do we come together as individuals? Your context in history, my context in history, and as Gadamer says – we then have to merge those horizons, but it’s not in getting lost in the two.
When we don’t know who we are and how our history and context shapes us, we can easily start to read into the Bible what isn’t there. Or, we start to unnecessarily reject some of the healthy parts of who we are to fit into a sense of reality that’s just no longer real even though it may have been for the ancient mindset. The obvious example here is evolution and how we’ve seen so many attempts in the 20th and 21st century to fit an ancient view of creation into a modern framework of evolution. When we aren’t okay with the Bible being different than us and we ignore our current context, one in which evolution is a foregone conclusion, we come to some awkward, ill-fitted conclusions that don’t do justice to either the science of evolution nor the beauty and complexity of the creation accounts as we find them in our Bibles.
So, those are some of the reasons why I think it’s important that we look at our context. You know, it helps us see we aren’t the center of the universe, it helps us to be aware of the things that are influencing us, and it helps us to reimagine the Bible for our own time and our own lives. So, over the past ten years, I’ve spent as much time studying western history, philosophy, sociology, political science, psychology, pop culture, all kinds of things, and all kinds of fields… I’ve spent as much time studying those as I have the Bible because those studies form the backbone of our context. I didn’t need to read the Bible over and over and over. So, a lot of times, we get people who ask us, “What do we do with the Bible? We can’t just pick it up and read it. I’m so sick of it and I don’t know how to read it in a new way. I don’t know how to read it in a different way.” Maybe, just maybe it’s time to just set the Bible aside for a while and study our context. Know thyself, right, as Socrates said. Get to know yourself and how you’re built. Get to know the context in which you find yourself, the history of the ideas and the feelings and thoughts that you have. Where did they come from? They didn’t just come out of nowhere. We aren’t living in a vacuum. Maybe take some time to learn from the world that we live in and the context we live in and that way maybe we won’t have such an enmeshed relationship with the Bible as we once did. Maybe we can come to it now with good boundaries knowing who we are, where we come from, and what the Bible is and where it comes from and how we can have a healthier relationship. So, learning the context that we have here in the West and America, whatever your context is. Of course, for us things like racism and sexism are also a part of our context.
And so, there’s so much we could talk about, but in this brief series, I just want to talk about the context of the modern mindset because, again, we’ve mentioned it a handful of times I think this season. So, I wanted to dive a little deeper into this idea of the modern mindset, how some thinkers and practitioners and actually trying to move beyond that, the modern mindset into a new context. In other words, then, this is the first in a series of episodes where I want to look at some of the history of that modern mindset. Where did it come from and why are so many Christians critiquing it today as Pete and I have on the podcast while many more are actually doubling down on it and equating it with the Bible and the Gospel?
So, just like we’ve done with some series in the past, I don’t know how many episodes this will be. Maybe two. Maybe three or four. I’ll pick it up wherever I left off next time I have the opportunity to do another solo podcast. Primarily, we’ll just take a whirlwind tour of some of these key thinkers in philosophy and religion who have shaped and influenced how we see the world today in that modern mindset and how that has impacted many of us in terms of how we read our Bibles or come to our faith.
We’ll look at, you know, starting with pre-modern society. Let’s call it the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages just so we can contrast it with the modern period, and we’ll look at the early modern period, the Renaissance, with players like Erasmus and Copernicus and how they led us right into the modern period. But then we want to focus on that nerd journey through folks like René Descartes, which we all have at least heard of. Cogito ergo sum, right? I think therefore I am. A very famous philosophical, I hope that’s famous. I hope people know what that is or I just really outed myself as a nerd here. But, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Niche, Kierkegaard, Darwin, Pasteur, Freud, Einstein, Bohr – these thinkers that shaped this modern mindset. Of course, we can’t cover everyone and we’re going to over-generalize and we’re going to miss things, I promise you that. I mean, we can’t even scratch the surface of how things have changed over the last two-thousand years, that’s a whole liberal arts education. That’s a whole, whatever, PhD in History. But hopefully, we’ll hit some of the highlights and really kind of maybe focusing on areas that impact how we think about God and religion and faith. Things like knowledge and authority, right, tying that to the church. Identity, who are we, ethics, like morality and how we see what’s right and wrong in the world. So, hopefully that doesn’t take too much time and we can capture some of that.
This episode was mostly meant to set us up and to convince all of us to spend more time getting to know our context and not so, worry so much about reading the Bible for the tenth time through even though we know that’s a lie. We haven’t read it ten times through. You read it four or five times and got stuck in Leviticus the rest of the times, but didn’t want to tell anyone.
Anyway, since we have a little time left here, let’s just start our story here with the Middle Ages or what’s often called the Dark Ages. I mean, usually names like that are all hype, but I think there’s maybe something to this one. We start this part of the story debatably, and I won’t spend too much time here, but if we just kind of had to pinpoint a time, I’d put 410, when Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. This is really important because the Western Roman Empire essentially ends in August of 410. It would limp along for another fifty years, but its power essentially and symbolically here ends in 410. So, that’s the time frame where things start to shift and this caused, you know, a lot of political instability because the Roman Empire had provided political structure, infrastructure for the western world for hundreds of years.
But a new structure had been brewing and had been building over the last few centuries before 410 and this was the Roman Catholic Church. With so many factions over such a large geographical area, right, the Roman Empire had consolidated all these people groups in that area. The only social glue at this time that even had a chance of holding everything together was this church. But this wasn’t the church of Jesus’s day, this wasn’t your grandma’s church – this was a powerhouse organization structure that formed the basis of a new society, what historians would later call Christendom. And Christendom had two parts, right? You had the ecclesiastical structure, the church, the spiritual side of things. And then you had the political or the practical side of things. The Pope would lead and tend toward the spiritual needs and have a hierarchy of people, bishops and archbishops and priests on the one side, and then the emperor would lead and tend toward, tend to the political and the practical needs of people. But, of course, they couldn’t always agree on the jurisdictions, right? The authority.
So, these two factions end up fighting for most of the next thousand years, but they have an uneasy alliance to form this structure of society and culture. The church and the state were combined into this one thing called Christendom. And the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, really are dated from around 500, right? So, right around the fall of Rome and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church to the 1500s. It’s about a thousand years with this Christendom structure dominated the West. And the Roman Catholic Church had significant influence in all these areas we’re talking about: ethics, knowledge, authority, identity.
Now, it’s important to note that we call it the Dark Ages because those who came after this time period, we call the modern period, they, you know, during the Renaissance, they wanted to distance themselves from this time period. They saw it as a time of ignorance, authoritarianism, a loss of the great classical works of ancient Greece and Rome.
Rather than accepting great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, on their own terms, during the Middle Ages, they started to be integrated by Christian writers and tried to tie Aristotle’s insights with Christian dogma and doctrine. And this was also an uneasy pairing where Aristotle became not Aristotle anymore, but a Christianized version of Aristotle, which wasn’t fully Aristotle and wasn’t fully Christian. Or Plato wasn’t fully Plato, wasn’t fully Christian. It was a weird amalgamation of these.
A great example of how they didn’t get along would’ve been their view on resurrection and the view of the body. So, for Greeks, the body wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It was a prison for the soul. You’re constantly trying to figure out how to free up your soul. The real, real things were the forms. These essences. The soul. Not the body. But the church, you know, historically had taught the importance of a bodily resurrection. Being from, coming from the Jewish faith where material things are important, the body matters. And so, you know, how do we combine these two? And over time, the Greek influence really started to dominate. But it wasn’t again the classics. It wasn’t Plato and Aristotle on their own terms, but this Christianized dogmatic doctrinal version of it.
The educational systems of the Roman Empire were really monasteries. They didn’t teach reading and writing to the masses. This wasn’t a literate society, but it was, “Listen to us. We’re the church, we’ll tell you what you need” based on spiritual traditions that were loosely based on the Bible but more at work at abstracted into these systems of thought. Of course, there were exceptions to these generalizations, many of which led to the Renaissance, the return of classical literature, the recovery of all these things, scientific observations that led to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were happening during the Middle Ages, so it wasn’t completely true that there was a lack of anything going on. Obviously, we are always building on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, so there was something going on that led to the Renaissance. But it was largely a reaction to the Middle Ages.
But, you know, let’s look to simplify even further. Maybe at these four categories I mentioned earlier and talk a little bit about some of this. So, we have knowledge, for instance. There’s no scientific method to figure out exactly how things in the world interact with each other. There isn’t a lot of reasoning happening at the same level that will find it in the centuries coming in the Enlightenment where reason is seen as a thing done on its own terms. In the Middle Ages, reason was to basically make observations and draw conclusions without a clear methodology for how we get to truth. We just trusted our senses and kind of made observations from that.
You know, as I said before, based on this Plato and Aristotle influence, knowledge is really about the forms, the essence of things. How do we get to the essence of things? What’s really deep down? How the world interacts on a material level, not that important. Because what’s really important is the spiritual. And that, again, was a more Greek influence, but the church really adopted that. So, that’s ultimately, spiritual knowledge is the most real knowledge and God gives us that knowledge through the church.
So, then we have authority. How do we know what to believe and what to trust about the world and how it works and what’s true? That was largely mediated through the church, so authority came from God but it came through the Pope and through that hierarchical structure of archbishops and bishops and priests, and the common people didn’t really have an unmediated access to knowledge, right? They were told what to do by the State and by the church and that’s where the authority came from. It came from the Pope and the Emperor.
And this structure, this hierarchy was really important to who we are as human beings. There is this divine order and so, for me, knowing who I am as a self, was a matter of knowing where I fit into this divine pecking order which was also a social pecking order. Right? And humans are the center of the universe where the most important thing in the universe are these structures of the church and the state and reason was really just about determining the pecking order for all the beings.
There was this important concept called the Great Chain of Being, which again, was taken from Plato but really kind of made its own monster in medieval Christianity and reason was about figuring out where everything fit. Everything was ordered, everything was in its place, and we defined ourselves as individual humans by where we fit and belonged in the divine order of things.
And, as you can see, there is a theme here if we get to kind of ethics and the ideas of right and wrong. The church is going to determine that. Through its interpretation of the Bible and building on church tradition and church tradition and traditions of that tradition. What’s right behavior and wrong behavior is going to be determined by the church. And later in the Middle Ages, these things are going to be what sends people to eternal torment and hell, what sends people to paradise or heaven. You know? Think Dante’s Inferno at this time. So, right and wrong was very black and white, it was very much determined by the church, which they would say at the time was based on tradition and the Bible.
Later thinkers would characterize the Middle Ages as a time when knowledge really only comes from tradition, which comes straight from God and is mediated by the powerful: the church hierarchy, the state hierarchy. The powerful derive their power from the structure of Christendom, which again, rolled up either to the Pope or the emperor.
So, that’s a little bit of the background of the Medieval time period and the pre-modern thinking that leads to this revolution of the modern mindset. In the next part of the series, we’re going to start with Descartes and how much of Medieval thinking gets overturned to form this modern mindset and how actually within a few hundred years, thinkers like Niche and Kierkegaard are even going to start to question the modern mindset and form the basis for what many people call postmodern thinking. Including one person, Jacques Derrida who created a concept later in the 20th Century called deconstruction, which is a term you might have bumped into a time or two the past few years which is in some ways a critique of the modern mindset, but we haven’t gotten there. I’m getting ahead of myself. We just got past the premodern.
Next time, we’ll talk about the modern, we’ll jump it off with Descartes, I think therefore I am, which ushers in the modern mindset. I think that’s enough for now. Hope this was enjoyable. We’ll pick it up from here next time.
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