It Can Rain on My Parade

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Is rain a good or bad thing? It depends, you’d probably say, on what you’re doing at the time.

But when we hear “The rain falls on the just and the unjust,” we usually interpret it as “Bad things happen to good and bad people.”

I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he said, in the Sermon on the Mount,

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV)

In context, Jesus is talking about how we should give something good (love) to bad people, in the same way God gives the sunshine and rain to them. There certainly are places in the Bible that talk about bad things happening to good people, but I don’t think this is one of them.

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, point out that we often miss the meaning of Bible passages when we don’t see from the point of view of the authors and audiences of Bible times. (I’ve written about that here.) This seems to be one of those passages.

In our modern American culture, we often pray for nice, sunny days. We want good weather for an outdoor wedding, for a trip to the lake, or for a long drive. And by good weather, we usually mean the absence of rain—and warm, but not too warm, temperatures are great, too.

If all of our prayers were answered, we’d probably have the longest drought in history. Of course, then our attitude would change and we’d think of rain as a blessing. That’s the way farmers most often see it. Of course, an ill-timed rain can keep them out of the fields, and over saturation and flooding can ruin a harvest. But it’s the lack of rain that causes the most problems.

Last year, the UN reported that the majority of the world’s population, 54%, now live in urban areas. According to the World Health Organization, 55 years ago, the urban population accounted for just 34% of the total. Two thousand years ago, that percentage was much less.

In Jesus’ day, the people had a direct tie to the land and the goods that it produced. Think of all the agricultural metaphors Jesus used to get his message across. But today, living and working in air-conditioned buildings with drinkable water only a faucet handle away, much of my thinking about rain centers around my walk to and from the car.

I try to pray less about the weather than I used to. Rather, I want to pray that I will be able to make the best of my day regardless of whether it rains or not. I realize that God is not going to tailor every weather pattern to my scheduled activities, in part because my wishes for that day may be just the opposite of what others want or need. As C. S. Lewis puts it, my downhill could be someone else’s uphill:

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all it’s dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man travelling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humour and modesty express themselves.

Yes, I pray fervently when tornados touch down or typhoons threaten or droughts bring about famine. But I pray less for weather variations simply to enhance my day. Actually, let me restate that first part: I pray fervently when severe weather threatens me, but my sporadic prayers are less than fervent when it comes to famine or flooding half a world away.

We all need to pray less for our corners of the world and more for the huge swaths of people who face disastrous weather each day. We need to pray that those of us with much will help those with little who are at the mercy of the elements. We need to pray that our down-hill walk does not cause someone else a more difficult journey. We need to pray less for our will and more for God’s will to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

(“World’s Population Increasingly Urban with More than Half Living in Urban Areas,” United Nations, July 10, 2014; “Global Health Observatory (GHO) Data: Urban Population Growth,” World Health Organization; C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Centenary Press, 1940)

[photo: “Face à Face,” by D. Julien, used under a Creative Commons license]

Reading the Bible without Cultural Near-Sightedness

3782“Can you imagine a Jesus without all his teeth?” That’s one of the many questions that E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien ask in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.

In modern America, the authors point out, we tend to associate missing teeth with lack of intelligence. But what would your smile look like without the luxury of modern and available dentistry? Would you have a full mouth of straight pearly whites? Did Jesus have all his teeth intact? The authors write, “It seems like heresy to suggest otherwise.” But for much of the world, a lack of teeth would be irrelevant—if not expected—in a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.

Richards (a former missionary to Indonesia) and O’Brien’s goal in Misreading Scripture is to get us to rethink our assumptions about what we read in the Bible. They’re not saying that non-Westerners can understand the Bible better, just that we all come to the text with our own cultural baggage that we need to lay down. (They offer that someone else could easily write Misreading Scripture with Eastern Eyes.)

The authors admit that they’ve had to oversimplify the topic, as there is way too much to cover in one book. But, they write, their purpose is to “unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a crosscultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read.”

For instance, they open the book with the example of the hot, cold, and lukewarm waters of the church in Laodicea:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15,16 NIV)

Our assumptions lead us to think that hot means “on fire” with faith, while cold means that faith is absent. This reading says that God would rather us be non believing than to have a weak faith. But when O’Brien traveled to the site of Laodicea, he learned that nearby were the hot springs of Hierapolis and the cold springs of Colossae. Laodicea didn’t have any springs, so aqueducts brought water in. Both kinds of water, hot and cold, would have been welcome and refreshing to the people of Laodicea, but by the time the water arrived, it was only lukewarm. New insights bring new perspectives.

The story of David and Bathsheba gives another opportunity for us to see an “Eastern” viewpoint. The authors’ thought-provoking analysis suggests that David’s actions were motivated more by honor and shame than by feelings of guilt. In fact, they show how not only the king’s decisions, but also those of Bathsheba and Uriah, exemplify a culture where individual convictions of right and wrong are trumped by the weight of societal expectations.

Other topics covered in Misreading Scripture are the cultural differences of Individualism and Collectivism, Time, Rules and Relationships, Virtue and Vice, and Finding the Center of God’s Will. In the chapter covering this last subject, Richards and O’Brien discuss the common Western practice of a reader applying scriptures to himself, while non-Western readers—as with the Jews of the Old Testament—are more likely to apply it to the entire group. This is compounded, as the authors point out earlier in their book, by the lack of a plural you in the English language.

While I taught the Bible in Asia, it was a constant challenge to set aside my American presuppositions and allow my non-American friends to understand the Bible on their own terms. Instead, I was tempted to share my personal and cultural footnotes before they could be convicted of a “misguided” interpretation. This was especially dangerous when I found myself, as the authors call it, “arguing [them] to a lower standard.”

As I read through Misreading Scriptures, I wasn’t always convinced of the authors’ conclusions, but I was consistently “unsettled” enough to rethink my assumptions. And when I question those things that I take for granted, it makes me a better teacher and student. When I acknowledge my cultural biases, I am then better able to understand what the Bible says and less hindered by what I’m sure it should be saying.

(E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, IVP, 2012)