The Cultural Interpretive Lens

What role does our cultural narrative play in our understanding of ourselves and in our understanding of truth? All of us are influenced by this narrative. Being influenced by this cultural narrative, however, does not mean it is the controlling narrative. The ultimate and absolute narrative, the grand story that is true and true for all, is God’s narrative found in the Bible.

In light of all being influenced by, and some being controlled by, this cultural narrative, what does that mean? How might that work itself out as we consider ourselves in relation to the contemporary culture?

Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, 135-136, gives us an excellent example of what this entails (HT: Andrew Wilson).

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. He loves to smash and kill people when they show him disrespect. Living in a shame-and-honor culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That's me! That's who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That's not me. I will control and suppress that impulse. Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programs. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am.

What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed - and which are not and should not be. So this grid of interpretive beliefs - not an innate, unadulterated expression of our feelings - is what gives us our identity. Despite protests to the contrary, we instinctively know our inner depths are insufficient to guide us. We need some standard or rule from outside of us to help us sort out the warring impulses of our interior life.

And where do our Anglo-Saxon warrior and our modern Manhattan man get their grids? From their cultures, their communities, their heroic stories. They are actually not simply “choosing to be themselves” - they are filtering their feelings, jettisoning some and embracing others. They are choosing to be the selves their cultures tell them they may be.

A couple of questions to ponder:

  • As those called to preach and teach the Word of God to the people of God, how do you help people to see, understand and discern the power of the cultural narrative in forming and shaping beliefs and lives?
  • And then in response to the cultural narrative, how do you constructively build the biblical narrative as the true interpretive lens by which to understand life, ethics/morals and the world, i.e., a God-centered, gospel-focused, theologically-driven life-and-world view?

Email Updates

Subscribe to receive EFCA blog updates.

* indicates required