Friday, March 27, 2009

Culture and Companionship Retreat, 2009

I woke up early yesterday and drove to the Luther Point Bible Camp near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, to participate in the Culture and Companionship Retreat which I mentioned in an earlier post.

The meeting, a gathering of lay Lutherans and clergy, started slightly after 10 in the morning. It is somewhat interesting that I, a Catholic, have grown so used to interacting with American Lutherans that I feel entirely at home in their company. This is as it should be.

The focus of the Retreat was how we might study the Gospel with people of other cultures. We thought hard and shared ideas freely. We found ourselves wading deeper and deeper into a tangled thicket of surprises and dilemmas, as we explored the question of how our cultural backgrounds shape our understanding of Biblical texts, making it impossible to know what any story in the Bible might mean to people of different cultures. As part of this conversation, I shared the story "Did Jesus Christ Ever Kill a Lion?"

The idea of multiple interpretations, so central in contemporary literary theory, applies as well to the Bible. As is the case with all reading and interpretation, the issues that matter to us as we read the Bible, the aspects that attract our attention and those that don't all have something to do with our cultural background and values. Often that background is the defining principle. No one culture can claim ultimate or sole authority to interpret the Biblical texts and impose that interpretation on other cultures. We must have a dialogue, respectful of our cultural differences, and mindful of the need to hear all interpretations and value them. That is an integral part of the concept and ideal of companionship and accompaniment.

We were a gathering of Christians, but we realized that although we all believe in God, every culture deserves the right to interpret the stories, the language, and the concepts of the Bible in ways that are meaningful to them. Fortunately, that recognition is gaining ground around the world, contesting the earlier missionary idea that sought to convert everyone around a single, mostly Eurocentric intepretation. My own spin on this idea is to refer to folklore, which amply demonstrates how the essential message of Creation, of man's subsequent alienation from the Creator, concepts of good and evil, and so on, appear in the indigenous mythology of people all over the world.

We learned a great deal, challenging the very ideas and beliefs that many of us, perhaps most, had hitherto taken for granted. We thereby laid the groundwork for future retreats, by raising so many questions requiring further reflection.

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