Reading the Bible upside down

Jan 12, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In last month’s focus on the Bible’s Christmas stories we have been reminded of a strong theme: the message of God’s kingdom challenging and even reversing our natural human understandings of how things are. Mary, on being told that she is to be the mother of the Son of God, praises him for his agenda of bringing down the rulers from their thrones, and lifting up the humble. Educated foreigners, representatives from a nation of past oppressors, lay their wealth in worship before a baby from a poor family. Humble elderly people, with no visible eminence or influence, are the first to publicly articulate Jesus’ unique role in God’s saving plan for the nations. The message of Christmas certainly speaks of spiritual change: God enters into the darkness of our sin to forgive and redeem. But one cannot avoid the clear implication that the revolution being inaugurated will have implications beyond the confines of religious places of worship and the inward lives of believers – it will have an impact which is moral, political, economic and cultural as well.

I recently read an article which makes this point in a blog on the website. The writer says that most of us in the West tend to filter out this theme of God’s plan to reverse the current order – ‘the first will be last and the last first’ – because we read it from the perspective of the rich and powerful:

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” how was that received? Well, it depends on who is hearing it. The poor Galilean peasant would hear it as good news (gospel), while the Roman in his villa would hear it with deep suspicion…“sounds like socialism to me!”

Because this blogger, like most of us, reads the Bible naturally from the perspective of the rich Roman rather than the poor Jew, he or she must consciously work hard at not applying Scriptures too immediately to one’s own situation, perhaps by spiritualising passages that talk about wealth and poverty or human power structures. Rather, we should use our imagination to try to read them from the perspective of those without material resources and social influence, as most of the first believers would have been. For example, can I really appreciate the full impact of the Lord washing the feet of the disciples, if I have never been a servant? Might my theological perspective on the social laws of the Old Testament, or Jesus casting out demons be a bit limited if I have only experienced a secular middle class Western culture, and have never spoken to an African or Asian about these passages?

This could be called reading the Bible ‘upside down’ – from the perspective of those on the underside. The danger, of course, is to go too far and reinterpret the biblical Gospel merely as socio-economic transformation. Many ‘liberation’ theologians have fallen into this trap of minimising or even denying altogether the primary spiritual message of salvation through Christ’s saving death, conferred by grace and received through faith, which the Bible makes explicit and obvious.

The article I read veers towards such an interpretation of the Bible which equates the reign of God with a particular humanistic model of politics and economics. But this leaves people in their alienation from God, and perpetuates antagonistic divisions between rich and poor. A genuinely diverse church, on the other hand, unites and levels people from different races and class backgrounds as forgiven sinners at the foot of the cross, but then enables people to learn from one another as part of the discipleship process.

And we need to do more, as those living in the privileged West, to facilitate humble mutual exchange with the poor, the persecuted, those facing violence and sickness and famine. This should help materially comfortable but spiritually weak Christians not simply to give charitably out of one’s spare resources, but to understand more from those with whom we share about maintaining strong faith and witness in the face of adversity and suffering, and relying on God for provision of daily needs. Perhaps even to begin to grasp some of the issues which keep people poor and to appreciate biblical calls for justice, or to be fired up by the zeal of those who fearlessly preach Christ and see church growth in disadvantaged areas while we in the West seem to have lost the conviction for this. To get a true perspective we need more than imagining we are poor – we need to have genuine fellowship with those who really do look at the Bible from this viewpoint on the underside. How can this happen?

The Anglican Communion is a unique global network which already enables this mutual learning and could do much more. But there is another ingredient that is needed besides just conversation between people of different cultures. There needs to be a genuine shared starting point in terms of understanding of the basics of what it means to be a Christian. What binds the people of God together is not a label such as Anglicanism, certain shared practices for example in worship, a commitment to the concept of ‘unity’, or a donor-recipient relationship. It is the shared confession of faith in Jesus as Lord, a shared submission to Scripture as authoritative and God-breathed. On this basis an impoverished African woman is able not just have fellowship with a wealthy American or English man, but a miraculous reversal of the world’s order can take place, whereby they are united in Christ; he serves her, and learns and grows as he sees the world from her eyes.

The new global Anglican movements which have emerged in recent years, GAFCON and ‘Global South’, are a recognition that the centre of gravity in terms of church life has shifted from the prosperous cultures of the north and West to the less privileged parts of the world.  These movements have an important role in acting as an anchor for biblical truth in a world where churches in the West are drifting with the currents of secularism. And also, they provide a means by which faithful Anglicans in more privileged contexts can through fellowship in the Spirit with Anglicans across the nations, access essential resources in reading the Bible, living with prosperity and suffering, and witnessing to Christ in the culture.

[A shorter version of this article appeared first in Church of England Newspaper, 12th January 2017].

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