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Preunderstanding

One major influence that can skew our interpretive process and lead us away from the real meaning in the text is what we call preunderstanding. Preunderstanding refers to all of our preconceived notions and understandings that we bring to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before we actually study the text in detail. The preunderstanding problem is the broader issue that links with the cultural problems introduced above and discussed in more detail below. Preunderstanding includes specific experiences and previous encounters with the text that tend to make us assume that we already understand it.

Preunderstanding is formed by both good and bad influences, some accurate and some inaccurate. It includes all that you have heard in Sunday school, at church, in Bible studies, and in your private reading of the Bible. However, preunderstandings of biblical texts are also formed by hymns and other Christian music, pop songs, jokes, art, and nonbiblical literature, both Christian and secular. Likewise, culture constantly creeps in.

Note that your preunderstanding of any given passage may indeed be correct. The problem, however, is that often it is not, and until you study the text seriously, you simply do not know whether it is accurate. The danger here is for those who assume that their preunderstanding is always correct. Vanhoozer labels this attitude as pride. This kind of pride, he writes, “encourages us to think that we have got the correct meaning before we have made the appropriate effort to recover it. Pride does not listen. It knows.”

Another dangerous aspect of preunderstanding surfaces when we come to the text with a theological agenda already formulated. That is, we start into a text with a specific slant we are looking for, and we use the text merely to search for details that fit with our agenda. Anything that does not fit in with the meaning we are looking for we simply skip or ignore. Vanhoozer humorously labels this as “overstanding” and not “understanding.” That is, we as readers stand over the Word of God and determine what it means, rather than placing ourselves under that Word, seeking diligently to determine what God means in the text.

A related danger is that of familiarity. If we are thoroughly familiar with a passage, we tend to think that we know all there is to know about it and are prone to skip over it without studying it carefully. Hopefully you realized in part 1 that most passages have a lot of depth to them, and we are unlikely to exhaust them or to grasp all there is to grasp in a few short visits to that text. Familiarity with a passage creates preunderstanding. As we revisit these familiar texts, we must resist the temptation of letting our familiarity dictate our conclusions before we even get started studying a text. We need to study it afresh, lest our preunderstanding turn into the pride mentioned above. Furthermore, as we mentioned in part 1, if we skip over serious fresh study of a text because we think we know it already, all we will see in the Bible is what we saw last time. Our study becomes boring and stagnant, and our growth and understanding become stunted.

One of the most powerful, yet subtle, aspects of preunderstanding is that of culture. Our theology tells to ask, What would Jesus do?Our culture, however, may subconsciously be telling us to ask, What would Jason Bourne do? Or perhaps, What would Chuck Norris do? Undoubtedly, our culture has a tremendous influence on how we read and interpret the Bible. For example, even though we believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, when he tells us to turn the other cheek, a voice in the back of our head objects. After all, turning the other cheek is not really the American way. It is not what Jason Bourne would do. Perhaps he might turn his cheek once and let his adversary strike him a second time just to demonstrate his patience and control, but undoubtedly after that second strike he would thrash the bad guy soundly (and we would all cheer). None of our action heroes turns the other cheek!

Thus, when we read of such a command from Jesus, we immediately try to interpret it in such a way that it does not conflict with cultural norms, especially those set by the culture’s heroes, be they Jason Bourne or Harry Potter. This culture-driven predisposition we call cultural baggage. Imagine that you are about to embark on a long hike in the mountains on a hot day. You wear good hiking boots and a hat. You bring sunglasses and a canteen. Should you bring three or four suitcases along? How ridiculous! Can you imagine hiking through the mountains with a suitcase under each arm? If we are not careful, our culture will likewise weigh us down on the Interpretive Journey and hinder us from discovering and grasping God’s Word to us. Our culture tends to make us skew the text as we read it, twisting it to fit with our cultural world. Or, as illustrated in the Christmas pageant story cited in the introduction, our culture works in us subconsciously to fill in all the gaps and missing details of the passage we are reading.

A good illustration of culture’s subconscious influence on our understanding occurs when we read the book of Jonah and then try to visualize Jonah inside the great fish. Try to imagine this scene yourself. What do you see? Do you see Jonah squashed-up inside of the tight stomach of a whale, with no space between him and the stomach walls? Most people do not see that image. Many people, including ourselves, see Jonah inside a circular-shaped stomach, about six to eight feet in diameter, with a little bit of water at the bottom. Obviously this is not really what the inside of a whale (or fish) looks like.

So why do we see this? Where might this image come from? We suggest it comes from the movie (or book) Pinocchio. In this Walt Disney movie a whale swallows the main character, Pinocchio. The movie then presents us with a scene that portrays Pinocchio sitting inside the whale (a barrel-shaped room on its side, six to eight feet in diameter, etc.). This movie thus leaves us with a subconscious image of a person sitting inside a whale. When we read of Jonah’s digestive misfortune, our minds begin an image search back through our memory banks, looking for a picture from which to visualize the event. As our mind searches through the files in its memory, it hits a match in the Pinocchio file, and a picture comes to mind without our conscious reckoning of where we obtained the image. Subconsciously we begin to fill in the descriptive gaps in the Jonah story with information that comes from a Hollywood movie! Thus we find ourselves influenced in our reading of the Bible without even realizing what has happened.

What exactly do we mean by culture? Our culture is a combination of family and national heritage. You learn it from your Mom at breakfast, from the kids on the playground at school, and from YouTube. It is a mix of language, customs, stories, movies, jokes, literature, and national habits. For Americans it is comprised of Big Macs, Barbie dolls, Tiger Woods, and Lady Gaga all mixed in with George Washington, Babe Ruth, the Mississippi River, Wal-Mart, and Facebook. It can vary somewhat, however, even within the same city. If you grew up in an inner-city, blue-collar, Catholic home with both parents, your culture differs in many respects from that of someone who grew up in a suburban, white-collar, single-parent, Protestant home, but you will still share many of the same cultural influences. However, even though they share some common cultural features, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic cultures differ significantly, even within North America. Once you move out of North America, you will encounter drastic differences in culture.

Your family background is also a central element in your cultural world. You have inherited many, many values, ideas, and images (for good and for bad) from your family. For example, what are your views about money, work, the poor, or the unemployed? Your views have undoubtedly been shaped by your family’s socioeconomic setting and its outlook. If you are from an upper middle-class family, you will probably approach biblical texts about the poor from a different frame of reference than someone born and raised in the poverty of New Delhi. We are not suggesting that the cultural reading from New Delhi is automatically right while the one from Dallas is wrong. Christians in both settings need to be aware that their family background and socioeconomic setting affect how they read the Bible.

Your family also provides you with your strongest frame of reference regarding relationships. If you were fortunate enough to grow up in a loving, caring family, it will be easy for you to transpose the imagery of this experience to the imagery of God’s care for you. If you had a loving father, for example, the biblical image of God as a loving Father will be easy for you to grasp. In this case, the cultural influence of your family background helps you grasp the biblical truth about God.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone has had a loving father. Those who have grown up with negligent or even abusive fathers carry a lot of baggage into the biblical texts that describe God as a Father. This doesn’t mean that these people cannot grasp this aspect of biblical truth, but it does mean that they will have to work harder to overcome some of the negative images from their childhood. Other images of God and his care may relate better to them. As we all seek to understand God’s Word, it is important that we acknowledge and identify the cultural influences at work in our heads and hearts.

We recognize full well that Christians do not culturally misread the Bible intentionally. As noted, all of us tend to be influenced by our culture subconsciously. This automatic transportation of the biblical text into our cultural world is called “interpretational reflex.” It is a natural thing to do, and we do it without thinking about it.

Interpretational reflex affects our interpretation in two ways. (1) As mentioned in the Christmas pageant story, we tend to fill in all of the gaps and ambiguities in the biblical texts with explanations and background from our culture.

(2) More damaging to our interpretation is the fact that our cultural background preforms a parameter of limiting possibilities for a text even before we grapple with the intended meaning. In this situation, based on our culture we subconsciously create a world of interpretive possibilities and a world of interpretive impossibilities. In other words, our cultural setting has driven us to decide possible and impossible meanings for the text even before we study them.

Let’s examine again Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. Our subconscious agenda seeks to legitimize our cultural worldview, that is, the way things are in our culture. Thus, before we even start to explore what Jesus meant when he said this, we place parameters of possibility around the text and eliminate culturally conflicting possible meanings. It cannot possibly mean that if someone bad hits you, you are to let them hit you again. However, by doing this we are placing our culture above the Bible and reading the Bible through culture-colored lenses. In this way we miss one of the main points of the Bible, namely, that the biblical message is from God and is above culture. The challenge is to critique our culture with the Bible and not vice versa.

For an evocative example, let’s take a “cultural” look at Romans 13:1–7. (This section is targeted primarily at American readers. If you are not an American, please be patient with us in this section. Try to determine a similar situation in your culture). Read this passage carefully:

1Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

With this passage in mind, would it have been wrong for you to participate in the Boston Tea Party of 1773? In protest of a new tax on tea, American “patriots” dumped tons of someone else’s tea into the Boston Harbor. Was that a Christian thing to do? Or suppose you were one of the Minutemen along the route between Concord and Boston on April 19, 1775. Should a Christian aim, fire, and kill the soldiers that represent the government? Does this not conflict with Romans 13?

Or perhaps the larger question should be asked: Was the American Revolution undertaken in disobedience to Romans 13:1–7? Keep in mind that the Revolution was more about economics than about religious freedom. Remember too that when Paul wrote Romans, the government in Rome was much more oppressive and tyrannical than the British government under King George III ever was. What do you think?

Perhaps we have angered some of you. Perhaps you are steamed-up about our challenge to the legitimacy of the glorious American Revolution. Please forgive us. We are not really concerned with what you think about the Revolution. What we hope you saw was some inner emotional reaction within yourself to a fairly literal and normal reading of a biblical text. If you reacted strongly to our suggested understanding of Romans 13, you should ask yourself, Why did I react so strongly? We would suggest that we struck a sensitive cultural nerve.

You see, the morality of the American rebellion against Britain is never questioned as we grow up. It is always presented as wonderful and glorious—the epitome of patriotism (which must be good). It is tightly intertwined in our hearts with the flag, baseball, Mom, and apple pie. Thus it has become sacred. We place the “rightness” of it over any critique or challenge to it that may come from the Bible. Any interpretation of Romans 13 that can possibly be legitimate must comply with respect for the Revolution. Thus we place our culture over the Bible, and we become closed-minded to any understanding of the Bible that conflicts with the status quo of our culture.

Of course the Revolution is more complicated than we have admitted. Our purpose is not so much to criticize it as to use it as an illustration. However, we do want you (American readers) to see that there are American things that exert a powerful subconscious influence on the way we read and interpret the Bible. We need to be aware of these influences and to be conscious of their effect on our study. It is important that we at least be open to the possibility that Romans 13 may be critical of the Revolution. We are looking for what God is saying and not what our culture is saying. We must look to the details of the text and its historical setting to determine the answer, not to our own culture-driven preunderstanding.

If we start our interpretive analysis of Romans 13:1–7 with the preconceived, forgeone conclusion that it cannot be critical of the Revolution, we are then placing our culture above the Bible. Jesus, however, calls us to a higher calling! We are citizens of hiskingdom, pledged to follow him and his teachings. We should never place our loyalty to our country and culture above our loyalty to God. Regardless of what you think about the Revolution, we hope you grasp the idea that we must be able to put all of our American culture on the table under the scrutiny of Scripture. Never should we allow our culture to dictate the meaning of the Word of God.

This is radical stuff and may be difficult for you to digest all at once. We know that. Mull on it for a while. Talk to Christians from different cultures and get their perspective.

Preunderstanding, including culture, is not inherently bad, but it can often skew our understanding of the Bible and lead us down the trail of misinterpretation. We do not want to abandon our preunderstanding, throwing all of our previous encounters with the text into the trash. What we do want to do is to submit our preunderstanding to the text, placing it under the text rather than over the text. We must be able to identify our preunderstanding and then be open to changing it in accordance with a true serious study of the text. That is, after we have studied the text thoroughly, we must then evaluate our preunderstanding and modify it appropriately in light of our current study.


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