Objections to the Bible: Cultural Relevance

by Kyle
published October 24, 2015


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Recently, I have been thinking and writing about the myriad reasons people reject the Bible as being the reliable, trustworthy and revealed word of God.

There is one objection I am forced to concede. Some have observed that the Bible is simply a cultural relic that reflects and affirms cultural values that are no longer relevant. Author, atheist and former Christian preacher John W. Loftus raises the objection this way, “Let’s just face it. The Bible and the people who produced it were barbaric and superstitious. The only redeeming qualities about the Bible or the Christian tradition are those things that civilized people agree with them about, and hence they are irrelevant to modern, scientifically literate people.”

In short, the only thing of value the Bible has to offer are those ideas that we already like in our cultural context. The rest of the Bible is barbaric mythology. Loftus in particular tends to view the strictness of the law of Moses and its prescribed punishments as the primary evidence for the Bible’s barbarism. After all, it seems gratuitous to punish someone for doing something our culture no longer discourages.

This is an objection I must concede. The Bible is not culturally relevant. By that, I mean to admit that the Bible does not affirm the same values our culture affirms. Neither does it offer meaningful solutions for better conforming our daily lives to our stated cultural values.

There is a phrase we often misuse, “Begging the question.” Often, it is used in place of “raising a question,” which is when new answers lead us to pose new questions. “Begging the question,” on the other hand, is when someone ignores important questions and proceeds to forming conclusions without the answers.

While I am forced to admit that the Bible is not culturally relevant, rejecting the Bible as the reliable and trustworthy revealed word of God because it is not culturally relevant to 21st century America begs several questions.

First, this objection assumes that the culture the writings of the Bible address what the Bible commands. Second, it assumes that our culture is good.

The fact is the Bible was never culturally relevant. The cultures that the Bible addresses most immediately did not value the things God revealed as valuable. There has never been a “biblical culture” in all of human history. The Bible constantly commands, “Stop doing this” and “You should be doing this” because the people to whom the books of the Bible were written were doing things they shouldn’t and they were not doing things they should. Leviticus 18:23 wouldn’t forbid sex with animals if people weren’t already doing just that. Leviticus 18:21 — just two verses earlier — wouldn’t forbid the sacrifice of children to a false god unless people were already doing it. Malachi 1:6-14 wouldn’t chastise priests for offering inferior sacrifices if they were offering good sacrifices. The whole Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ treatise on how the culture in which he was preaching failed to meet God’s standard, even if they thought they did.

The Bible does not affirm culture. It never has. Rather than affirming culture, the Bible is concerned with correcting it.

Even our own civilized and scientific culture requires correction. For all our knowledge, our culture lacks wisdom. All the supposed sexual freedom we have fought for seems to leave us more confused and unsatisfied than happy and fulfilled. We kill 1.2 million babies per year and justify it by scientifically calling them fetuses. Ironically, most are killed for the sake of the mother’s future and the remains are cremated. How far we have not come from a culture that throws babies in the fire of a false god who offered good fortunes. The children that survive cannot depend on their father’s love for them or for their mother. Forty percent of children born last year in the U.S. don’t even enjoy the pretense of fathers’ promises to stay with their mothers. Children lucky enough to be born to married parents still face a divorce rate that hasn’t changed in decades: 50 percent. Lasting love in our culture is as reliable as a coin flip.

Our education system stinks. Our prisons are full. Our most profitable exports are junk food and pornography. America consumes rather than produces. Activists in every corner decry our lack of progress over the last several decades, and they are probably right to one degree or another.

All this sounds like a pretty barbaric culture.

As deep as our problems are, maybe we need answers that are countercultural rather than culturally relevant. Maybe we live in a culture that needs to be confronted rather than affirmed. The Bible — the whole counsel of God’s Word rather than a piecemeal of out-of-context quotations collected by someone with an ax to grind — paints a picture of where we ought to be which is drastically different from where we are. That’s why it is not culturally relevant.

Sam Harris, in his book “The Moral Landscape,” argues that morality can be understood as promoting conditions that promote human flourishing. In that frame, Harris argues morality does not depend on revelation from a deity. I agree that morality and human flourishing are related, but I think he had the issue flipped. Harris argues that we need to seek human flourishing to discover morality. Instead, the Bible seems to claim that if we seek morality as defined by God, we will discover human flourishing.

Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The Bible cannot be expected to be “relevant” to a culture under the reproach of sin. The objection to the Bible’s failure to be relevant does not condemn the Bible half as much as it condemns our culture.

What do you think?

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