Monday, March 01, 2010

Perception of Good

One of the great challenges of hermeneutics is understanding context. This past two weeks I have been trying to bridge the gap between the traditional critical and historical approach to interpretation of scripture by using cultural anthropology as a model for contextual analysis. What does anthropology have to say about “honor and shame,” “purity and impurity,” “kinship and marriage,” and “limited good,” as it relates to understanding the first century church?

Missiologists have never advocated that the social sciences be THE model for interpretation of context. However, I am amazed how many theologians discount the role or even the validity in using cultural anthropology as a tool for scriptural understanding.

Anthropologist George Foster, in 1965, stated that in peasant societies (which one can clearly see in first century Palestine) there was an image of limited good. By that he means the access to goods, honor and resources was not abundant but indeed restricted. A person and/or family either had or did not have access to good based on kinship. Land owners, craftsman, tenant farmers for the most part were ascribed status within society. The only way good was achieved beyond cultural ascription was through deception and abuse of power. Vassar kings, like Herod, were despised by the common folk as his allegiance was to Rome and not the people he was given charge to rule. Matthew and Zacchaeus were despised “sinners” as their profession of tax collection was often a means to exploit others for their benefit. Limited good is a sum zero game. For someone to grow rich someone else must suffer loss. The rich get richer as the poor get poorer (a classic tension between capitalism and socialism as it plays out in today’s world).

Fast forward to the story of the landowner giving talents (investment capital) to three servants. Two servants make a handsome ROI (return on investment). The third steward is ridiculed and ostracized because he was not willing to be a Zacchaeus. You would think that the interpretation of this story is that the hero is not those who gain ROI in a limited good society, but the one who was willing to face the wrath of a harsh master rather than turn against his fellow countrymen. But that is not how the average evangelical theologian interprets this parable. Through the lens of unlimited good, capitalism and profit margins, the hero is the one who uses his talents to gain more talents. “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful (exploiting) with little to gain more. Enter into the joy of the Lord.” (Okay, I am going over the top in my interpretation, but I do so for effect and to make my case). The point being is that to be consistent in interpretation of scripture all tools or models can be helpful, including cultural anthropology. Especially as it relates to first century Palestine, today’s model of unlimited good does not fit, though we continually try to make the case through the lens of economic expansion.

Distorted hermeneutics comes into play when we try to make our interpretations fit into our culturally biased analysis. On this issue Lingenfelter writes,One of the distortions that we as human beings bring to social relationships is that of making our familiar structure the only structure that God can use to accomplish his purpose. We distort the diversity of God's creation and reduce the structures for human life to those that are familiar to us. By denying the validity of other structures, we force people to submit to our standards and structures of relationship in order to accomplish the work and purpose of God (LEADING Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationship for Effective Christian Leadership. Baker Academic: 64)

The parable of Luke 19 is still up for debate. Was Jesus teaching his audience to be counter-cultural, ahead of his time in seeing the world with unlimited resources? Or, was he making a strong case against greed in a limited good society? For those who think anthropology has nothing valid to contribute to the study of scripture the third steward is an example of squandering God’s talents he has given us. That lazy servant should indeed be cast into outer darkness, alongside those who use social science as tool for interpretation of scripture.