A few years ago I was hunting in the badlands of North Dakota. Early in the morning I left our camp and started walking out in the dark toward a canyon I planned to hunt that morning. The headlamp I wore gave a strong beam of light to guide my footsteps. Unfortunately, the lamp was very close to my eyes, so as it shone I saw everything as if the light was coming from me. Because of that, I had no perspective on the ground in front of me, no sense of depth perception. I stepped into a deep hole up to my knee and ended up sprawled face first on the grass. If things had gone just a little differently I would have broken my leg.
I reflected later that if I had been carrying a flashlight in my hand, I would not have fallen. The perspective provided by the separation between the light and my eyes would have helped me see more accurately.
So often we read the Bible as though it was written to us personally. There's a lot of good in that, and I believe the Spirit of God speaks through the Bible to us in powerful ways. But if we don't understand the culture and the context in which the Bible was originally written, we will find ourselves making all kinds of incorrect assumptions about what it means.
One of the privileges of living in 2014 is that we have been given a better understanding of the Bible's original context than at any time since the first century in which it was written. Because of discoveries in the late 19th and 20th centuries and the scholarship that has investigated those discoveries -- I'm thinking of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, the archaeological discoveries that have been made in the Mediterranean basin and so much more -- we have a far better window into the original writers of the Bible (in human terms) and the world in which they lived.
As we learn about their world, we begin to gain a different perspective on our own. We start to realize that we come to the quest for truth with a different set of assumptions. Our thinking is deeply shaped by our own context. We are the grandchildren of the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution. We mostly believe according to the assumptions of rationalism. We are deeply shaped by humanist philosophies. These are not necessarily bad things -- we've gained a lot of benefits from these ideas -- but if we don't begin to understand that our thinking is colored by our own context, we are foolish.
By digging into the biblical world and trying to understand it on its own terms, we gain perspective on our own world. How did people in Jesus' day think about language? About time? About poetry? About science? About death? All these are expressions of our deepest assumptions about reality. If we understood how people then thought, two things will happen.
First, we'll understand Jesus and his followers better, because they were speaking, acting and writing to communicate with people who held a particular worldview. Second, we'll come to understand ourselves and the assumptions we hold better, and we may even begin to have a sense of perspective about our own culture and context.
A large part of what it means for the church to be salt and light in our world is that as we delve into Jesus and the world of the Bible, we gain perspective and our lives change. We are then able to provide an alternative approach to reality, a different set of assumptions about life and meaning.