Cultural lenses can enrich the Church’s understanding of Scripture
Written by Andrea Nwabuike
During a group presentation in my post-graduate family studies class, the presenters played a clip of the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience. The show comedically portrays the family tensions and growing pains of the Kim family, the Korean-Canadian owners of a convenience store in Toronto.
We watched a clip of Janet, the youngest child, and Appa (the Korean word for father) making amends after an argument. Janet and Appa sit in the large fridge in the back of the store, awkwardly unboxing bright red bottles of Powerade. Appa asks Janet if she thinks he has been a bad father to her, inviting her to give him a head flick if she finds him guilty of poor parenting.
Tears stream down Janet’s face as she exonerates her father, expressing her love and gratitude for his presence in her life. The emotional and touching moment is interrupted when Appa flicks Janet’s head and cracks a joke, leaving her to finish stocking the shelves on her own. Janet wipes her tears, and with a smile, gets back to work.
After playing the clip, the presenters invited the class to share our analyses of the father-daughter interaction. My classmates were disappointed with Appa’s response. They found him dismissive and emotionally unavailable. I felt as though I had watched a completely different clip. Despite not verbally accepting Janet’s apology, Appa’s actions and Janet’s smile at the end of the scene convinced me that the previous awkwardness and tension in their relationship had been repaired.
From my experience growing up with immigrant parents, I could relate to the nature of Janet and Appa’s interaction. Seeing action as equally, if not more, expressive than verbal communication was familiar to me. These drastic differences in interpretation alerted me to the power of perspective. My peers and I engaged with the video clip with unique lenses shaped by our family histories, personalities, cultural values, and norms.
The same unique perspective we bring to our engagement with media is present in our engagement with Scripture. In Say It! Celebrating Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition, Moody Theological Seminary’s vice president and dean Winfred Omar Neely writes, “All of us bring all we are to the interpretive table of life and texts. In short, every one of us has an interpretive location. We are not neutral.”
Our interpretive location reflects the identity markers and experiences that inform how we navigate the world. A young woman raised in a culture that values the honouring of elders may be particularly mindful of power dynamics and hierarchies in her workplace. A father that is estranged from his son may be especially patient with the rambunctious children at his church.
We are not machines who can exist in cold impartiality. To lose our interpretive locations would be to deny our humanity.
In order to experience the Word of God as living and active, it’s necessary for us to engage with it in the fullness of our humanity.
Neely offers a glimpse of faithful biblical interpretation nurtured in the context of one’s interpretive location. He argues, “The interpretive location of African American expositors makes them incredibly sensitive and alert to the plain teaching of Scripture about the value of children. In a world that was dangerous for children—and some part of our country are still dangerous for black, brown, and white children—these passages leap out with force to the African American expositor.”
The African American community carries a deep value of children that is rooted in their cultural beliefs and is a response to the history of violence against black boys and girls. When Jesus affirms the value of children, the African American community responds with a deep “yes and amen.” This sensitivity to passages about children equips the African American church to be an exemplary place for cherishing and nurturing children.
Our lack of neutrality in how we engage with Scripture does not mean that the Word of God is subject to personal opinions and preferences. Unlike a painting that can be judged according to individual taste, the Word of God offers us an objective picture of our reality.
Peter confirms the objectivity of Scripture when he writes, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Peter 1:20-21 ESV).
Throughout history, the Bible has been weaponized and manipulated to advance destructive ideologies and greed-driven pursuits for power. Denying the existence of our interpretive locations does not keep us from such abuses of the text. Rather, naming our interpretive locations allows us to become aware of the biases and blind spots that might limit our understanding of Scripture and to contribute uniquely to the Church from the richness of a contextualized faith.
We are both sensitized and desensitized to different aspects of reality based on our cultural context. Whatever resonates with our direct experience or fits neatly within our cultural framework is easier to embrace.
Conversely, whatever falls outside of our direct experience or contradicts our cultural framework is easier to dismiss or ignore. The gospel message both meets us in our cultural context and calls us to live beyond those limitations. If we resign ourselves to embracing what is easy and dismissing what is uncomfortable, we will only ever have a superficial experience with the gospel.
As Dr. Dru Johnson writes in his article, “Black American Slaves Understood the Bible Better Than White Americans Did. Why?”:
“Biblical literature on war and violence might be better understood by survivors of war atrocities and possibly by veterans. Similarly, agrarian subsistence farmers have helped us understand Jesus’ parables and Israel’s constant fear of crop failure and starvation. Rape victims have given voice to trauma implicit in Scripture’s stories of sexual violence. It’s not unreasonable to say that the church only stands to gain from hearing the better biblical interpretations from communities with experiential knowledge of the relevant topic.”
God could have delivered his word by any means but he chose to speak to us through the unique character and personality of each biblical writer. In doing so, God validates the gift of our stories as we come to meet with him in the reading of the Word.
Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.