truth and culture: beautiful origins

May 13, 2005 | 5 Comments

This is part of the Truth and Culture series. Previous posts: Intro, Focus Outward.

sistene chapel restorationIn 1981, work began on restoring the artwork of the Sistine Chapel. (A before and after close up of the results can be seen to the right.) The restoration took a total of twelve years and created a bit of controversy. There were those who felt that the once dulled colors were now too vivid, and couldn’t be an accurate portrayal of Michelangelo’s original color choices. The art of the Sistine Chapel is revered and sacred, which only heightened the tensions over the process. If no restoration was done, the colors would only continue to fade from view as more grime and soot collected on them. However, if the restoration was done, it could now be questioned whether or not this could still be considered the work of Michelangelo.

jesusUnderstanding the teachings of Scripture, and most specifically Jesus, presents a similar quandary. We are reading things that were written thousands of years ago by people who think completely differently than we do. As time passes, the human interpretation builds on our understandings of the Scriptures much like grime and soot on Michelangelo’s original art. People often read into the Scriptures whatever message they want to read. Sickening examples can be found on the covers of tabloids using Bible verses predicting armageddon or really cheesy shows on NBC. The unfortunate truth is, we are all guilty of it. Even someone reading the Scriptures for the first time is subject to the bias of those who tranlsated it into their language.

How are we to approach this? Personally, I think we are far better off going to whatever lengths we possibly can too restore the original image of who Jesus was. We have to understand the culture with which he spoke, and the intent of those who passed his words along to us. I think those who say the Bible will be easier for you to understand if you just ask God to help you do all of us a great disservice. The Bible isn’t easy to understand — it can’t be. It was written by many different people in a several different cultures greatly different from ours. Understanding the teachings of the Scriptures is hard work. (The restoration of the Sistine Chapel, by the way, took twice as long as it originally took Michelangelo to paint it.)

Yes, we do run the danger of not quite getting it right, but I think this gives us better odds than those who simply take whatever works best for them. I’m also confident of this — the personality and character of the true and original Jesus is far more beautiful than whatever grimy interpretations of him now exist. I only pray we have the courage to do the hard work and grapple with what we discover.

  • Understanding the cultural relevance of any passage in scripture is indeed hard work. Transferring that scholarship into the framework of our culture needs to be done carefully with great reverence for the message. For me, I am usually surprised how simple the message becomes. God is not complicated in His message to humanity. It is usually humanity that complicates the message because of its own need for control.

  • The message may be simple, but the projecting of that message is really where the rubber meets the road for the followers of Christ. that’s where the unpacking of what Jesus’ life was all about means so much. great thoughts john.

  • Zach,
    It’s interesting, because I was working on this entry, I was trying to figure out if it was a direct contradiction to your New Tune entry because I’m basically saying to overlook traditional interpretation as much as possible and try to go back only to root understandings. At the same time, I agree with your post, so I don’t know if Scriptural interpretation is something to be treated differently, or if there is some other kind of synthesis between the lines of thought…

  • john, i don’t think this contradicts my post. I was more talking about moving from one experience to another. i do think that of the modern way of interpretation has led us to more “objective” or “distanced” view of scripture and because of this trend, there will be a natural bounce back for many who are interested in moving away from a very “lab coat”-type approach to the gospel. this process would look like something you are describing and although it’s not inline with the modern approach, we do have to credit the modern approach as the “trigger” for a process of thirsting for a more accurate picture of the political, social, cultural world which provided that backdrop for this life that we want to follow so closely. not that the “objective” approach to interpretting the gospel is all bad, just very incomplete. does that make sense?

  • I get what you’re saying. I do think some of your post applies here. It is valuable to consider and to some degree build on the thoughts of those who have gone before us have interpreted Scripture. At the same time, our primary aim has to be to see the original meaning as clearly as possible, and not through the lenses of those who have interpreted it.