Taking Off Our Thinking Glasses

A few weeks ago I wrote a series on Pentecost that talked about parts of the story that we miss.  I wrote a little bit about why I think we miss these parts of the story, but in my next two posts I want to explore that further.

One of the things we must recognize when we are reading the New Testament (I’ll be focusing on the Gospels specifically) is that we have a different way of thinking than the writers who authored these books and letters.  We are “Western Thinkers” reading texts written by “Eastern Thinkers.”  One isn’t right or wrong, they are just very distinct and unless you make an attempt to understand the writer within his context, you may miss something the author is saying or, worse, misinterpret something the author is saying.

Before I get into this, let me defend authorial intent for a moment.  Without this key pillar of basic biblical hermeneutics, we are quickly sliding down a slippery slope.  We must do our best to attempt to understand what the author meant to convey to the people he was writing to when he put pen to paper instead of the feelings circle we sometimes call “Bible Study.”  (“Well how does this verse make you feel?”  “What does this verse mean to you?”).  All the deconstructionists that write about how we can’t understand the intent or meaning of the Biblical authors seem pretty sure that you understood their intent and expect you not to divorce it from their intended meaning.  I simply don’t understand why the same courtesy can’t be extended to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and all the rest right on down the line.  If you and I mean something specific when we write to someone and get our panties in a bundle when it’s misunderstood or misinterpreted (“That’s not what I meant!”), then why can’t the same be said for the New Testament writers?

Reading Glasses Resting on a BibleSo if we are going to attempt to understand the authors the way they intended, we must first realize that we are looking at the world through a certain pair of glasses and the Gospel writers are looking at the same world through a different pair of glasses.  I’m going to call our glasses “Western Thinking” and the Gospel writers glasses “Eastern Thinking.”  The rest of this post will be devoted to differentiating the two and then my next one will take and apply these principles to the text potentially revealing pieces of the text you have never noticed before simply because you were looking through the wrong glasses.

Western Thinking

I call it “Western” but it could also be deemed Greek thinking.  Western is simply a catch-all for the plethora of cultures in the west that stemmed from the birthplace of Greece.  Now, Western thinking is marked by a few things.

  1. Logic reigns supreme
  2. Value proposition, definition, organization, systematic explanation
  3. Abstract thinkers extracting truth from it’s context
  4. Illustrations are used to clarify a point

Eastern Thinking

I call it “Eastern” but it applies not only to the far east but to the near or middle east as well.  While there are variations within Eastern thought, these principles still ring true.

  1. Story reigns supreme
  2. Value word pictures, dramatic action, and concrete images
  3. Metaphorical thinkers observing truth within it’s context
  4. Illustrations are the point

Examples

  • Words
    • Western thinkers express truth abstractly using words, ideas, and logical definitions.  They prefer prose, outlines, lists, and bullet points
      • Ask a Westerner, “Who or what is God?” and they will answer, “Love.  Truth.  Righteousness.  Eternal.  Almighty.”  Very external, abstract, and logic based definitions.
    • Eastern thinkers express truth concretely using word pictures and stories.  They prefer poetry, imagery and symbolism.
      • Ask an Easterner, “Who or what is God?” and they will answer, “My shepherd.  My living water.  My bread.  My father.”  Very personal, concrete, and picture based definitions.
  • Numbers
    • Western thinkers see numbers as purely quantitative
    • Eastern thinkers see numbers as primarily qualitative or symbolic
      • Think back to the 3,000 referenced in Pentecost that I wrote about previously.  I’ll get to this more in my next post.
  • Life
    • Western thinkers focus on the individual
    • Eastern thinkers focus on community
  • Sin and Repentance
    • Western thinkers see sin as a wrong belief or incorrect thinking.  Repentance, then, is changing your mind.
    • Eastern thinkers see sin as a wrong behavior.  Repentance, then, is engaging in the opposite positive behavior.
      • Not just ceasing to do “bad,” but completing the opposite “good.”
  • Faith
    • Western thinkers focus on the intellectual.  They express faith in creeds, doctrines, and proof texts.
    • Eastern thinkers focus on the relational and personal.  They express faith as relationship rather than rationalization.
  • Truth
    • For Western thinkers, truth is rational and logical and abstract.  They like to take things apart, learn how they work, and extract the underlying principles.
      • Every high school has their students dissect a frog at one point in time.  This is a very Western way of learning.  When they dissect the frog, students can look inside and learn many truths.  How it’s heart works.  How it’s lungs work.  How similar the human and frog digestive systems are.
        • When Western thinkers look at Scripture, they focus on how and why things are done asking, “Why did this happen?”  “Why is the writer telling me this story?”
    • For Eastern thinkers, truth is experiential and story-bound.  They like to observe things, watch how they work, and take that as truth.
      •  A more Eastern way of studying the frog is to take the class to the pond and watch the frog for an unspecified number of days.  In doing this, students will  learn about his family, his habits, his personality.
        • When Eastern thinkers look at Scripture, they focus on what was done and who did it asking, “Who did this happen to?”  “Why is the writer telling me this story in this way?”

I want to clearly emphasize that there is no right and wrong here.  The are just different.  And we need to recognize that they are different.

The Bible was written by Easterners to Easterners.  The exception you could take are the writings of Paul who was an Easterner writing to a more Western audience (which is probably why we Western thinkers like Paul so much.  He’s very organized and didactic and we like that).  Once we realize that the Bible was written by Easterners for Easterners and admit that we don’t approach things the same way, we will be better able to take off our Western glasses and attempt to put on Eastern glasses thereby opening up portions of Scripture that we may have never seen before or never understood properly.

Next week, I’ll go into some specific examples in each of the Gospels hopefully causing your love and appreciation for God’s word to grow.

Advertisements

3 comments

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s