Adjusting our Vision
When my grandparents were in their eighties, their television developed a fault that made the screen permanently bright green. It was good for viewing garden shows or nature programs, but it was pretty disconcerting the rest of the time. Being a thrifty Scotsman, my grandfather never got it fixed!
Although it’s tempting to caricature culture’s influence on us in this way, its effects tend to be more subtle. Culture gradually adjusts our vision, rather than completely changing it. When you cover one eye, for instance, you still can see everything clearly, but your depth perception is compromised. Basically, you no longer see in 3-D.
Our cultural context works in a similar way. It is a lens through which we view life, shading and adjusting how we see things. And yet, because we tend to look through it rather than at it, we are often unaware that this cultural lens is affecting our vision at all. Modern culture has this sort of influence on our way of seeing life. If Christian vision involves seeing with two eyes—one divine and the other human—modern culture covers one eye so that we begin to see only from the human perspective.
Becoming Aware of Our Biases
In their excellent book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien share the importance of recognizing the lens through which see the world:
We speak as insiders, and this has its own challenges. We speak as white, Western males. In fact, we always speak as white. Western males. Everything either of us has ever written has come from the perspective of middle-class, white males with a traditionally Western education. There’s really nothing we can do about that except be aware of and honest about it. That said, we write as white.
Western males who have been chastened to read the Bible through the eyes of our non-Western sisters and brothers in the Lord. For example, I (Randy) remember grading my first multiple choice exam in Indonesia. I was surprised by how many students left answers unmarked. So I asked the first student when handing back exams, “Why didn’t you select an answer on question number three?”
The student looked up and said, “I didn’t know the answer. “You should have at least guessed,” I replied. He looked at me, appalled. “What if I accidentally guessed the correct answer? I would be implying that I knew the answer when I didn’t. That would be lying!”
Taken from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien Copyright (c) 2012 by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Realizing We are Biased
When I went to seminary to prepare for the ministry, I met an African-American student, Elward Ellis, who befriended both my future wife, Kathy Kristy, and me. He gave us gracious but bare-knuckled mentoring about the realities of injustice in American culture. “You’re a racist, you know,” he once said at our kitchen table.
“Oh, you don’t mean to be, and you don’t want to be, but you are. You can’t really help it.” He said, for example, “When black people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘Well, that’s your culture.’ But when white people do things in a certain way, you say, ‘That’s just the right way to do things.’
You don’t realize you really have a culture. You are blind to how many of your beliefs and practices are cultural.” We began to see how, in so many ways, we made our cultural biases into moral principles and then judged people of other races as being inferior. His case was so strong and fair that, to our surprise, we agreed with him.
The Religious Guy and the Atheist
There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God.
It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Speech: This is Water
When Even Science Has a Bias
Brock Schroeder used to teach astronomy at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, and he prided himself on being open to exploring a wide range of perspectives in his life and work. In the natural sciences, though, it’s typically understood that physical laws are the same regardless of one’s personal background. A focus on learning such things as the order of the planets and the scale of the universe should then mean that all of Dr. Schroeder’s students wind up with the same knowledge from taking his classes.
One semester, though, Schroeder was with his class in the planetarium, and he was demonstrating how one’s latitude on Earth determines one’s view of the sky. The position of the sun, moon and stars in the sky is different depending on where one is located on the Earth.
One student in his class was from Argentina, so to illustrate his point, Schroeder decided to simulate what the sky would look like that night in Buenos Aires. As he manipulated the controls to set up the projector to show the Argentinian sky, however, he experienced something disorienting.
Many of the constellations with which he and his North American students were familiar appeared very different, and some did not appear at all. Of course he had known from an intellectual standpoint that this would be so, but he had experienced it so rarely that it unnerved him. He felt lost in his own planetarium!
Schroeder also noticed that the stars in the part of the sky directly above the South Pole were missing. Upon inspection, he discovered that the company that had built the projector had attached the star ball to its base in such a way as to obscure those particular stars. It was a star projector built by a North American company for North American people. He was flabbergasted. The sky he had been teaching to his students as scientific fact was not the same sky that his student from Argentina had seen from his country and his perspective south of the equator.
Taken from Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil (c) 2020 by Brenda Salter McNeil. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com