In 1958 Eugene Burdick and William Lederer published "The Ugly American," a novel dealing with the inept political machinations of Americans in Southeast Asia. This bestseller birthed the expression “ugly American” as a catchphrase for the arrogance and parochialism of Americans overseas.
American culture now dominates the world—American music, movies, and technology sweep the globe in a great unstoppable tsunami. Americans have lived with this dominance for many decades now, and American supremacy has become a default assumption. Americans are certain of their own superior social values and moral standards, and are shocked when foreigners fail to play by the rules, American rules.
MADE IN AMERICA
The Bible was not invented by the Wright brothers or Steve Jobs. While Americans don’t consciously believe it was, they probably wish it had been because the Bible would be so much more understandable. Americans may not have created the Bible, but they can remodel and refine it, or so they think.
All those objectionable, un-American parts can be expurgated. And this is what is happening today. Americans have whittled the Bible down to size. Gone is all that offends American sensibilities. Fiat creation, punishment of evil, unseemly violence and pain, patriarchy, judgment, the narrow way, obedience, submission, substitution—it’s all just so, well, anti-American.
THE BIBLE AND CULTURE
Can a man from the Igbo people of Nigeria understand God’s word? Or a Japanese youngster in Tokyo? How about a Buddhist monk? History shows that such individuals can, and do, learn the way of salvation from the Bible all by themselves.
The proof of the power of Scripture, and its ability to cross cultural divides, is easily demonstrated. In fact, there is no greater, more popular, or more influential book on the planet than the Bible. It has pressed its way across borders, mountains, oceans, and deserts. If the Bible were available in every language in the world, if governments and societies did not forbid the reading of the Bible, and if literacy were universal, Scripture would spread like wildfire. It would be read and understood by the world’s inhabitants, with or without teachers or ministers.
Governments can forbid the spread of the Bible, but no individual culture, no matter how powerful, can stop anyone from understanding the Bible. Considering the problems of translation and the relative weakness of the written vs. the spoken word, the world-wide power of the Bible is astounding. Only God could have accomplished such a thing.
Americans are consumed with long-standing battles over issues such as reproductive technologies, scientific overreach, assisted suicide, homosexuality, gender identity and role, racism, and abortion. Therefore, it is not surprising that Adventist Americans have responded to this bewildering array of cultural disputes by attempting to harmonize their Bibles and their political beliefs. The result is an American-Adventist vision of biblical truth.
In fact, this situation has led to a dangerous struggle within the Adventist church. Many American Adventists now believe that their tiny segment of the world’s population has a corner on the interpretation of a universal, timeless book, the Bible, and they don’t understand why other cultures have the temerity to reject American pronouncements. The ugly, culturally arrogant, parochial American Adventist now strides the earth.
Contrary to the we’re-the-only-ones-who-know American Adventists, the Bible asserts its own view of reality. American Adventists have subdued the unruly Bible by explaining away the parts they object to. The fact is, the Bible doesn’t need American culture to explain itself.
Jesus said to the woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (English Standard Version, John 4:22). Though born in one culture, Scripture transcends all culture. The Bible was designed for the ages and will remain relevant and meaningful for every kindred, tongue, and people. The Bible is not irrevocably rooted in time or place. It is a living, breathing text.
Even Jewish culture, from which the Bible sprang, was not sufficient for a true understanding. The Jews in the times of the prophets rejected warnings from God; the disciples failed to understand the nature of Christ’s ministry and sacrifice. No single human culture offers the one infallible path to interpreting the Scripture. Why do Americans think they are so different?
Human culture, no matter how enlightened, always distorts the will and law of God. In fact, the ancient Greeks, the most intellectually dazzling culture of all time, were blind to the teachings of Paul. Their culture was a hindrance, not a help.
American culture offers no advantage in interpreting the Bible. In fact, it is a dangerous limitation. The fact that most Adventists are now non-Western does not put them at a disadvantage.
By inspiring the Bible, God knew that He would be trying to bridge the gap between Jewish culture and many other cultures scattered over the millennia. If the gap is insurmountable, then God wasted His time in giving the Scripture to the world. More significantly, the birth of His Son Jesus by a Jewish mother in a Jewish culture was a hopeless gesture.
THE AMERICAN NEED
Adventists in the United States need to become less absorbed by their culture’s attempt to remake the world in its own image. They must acknowledge that their analysis of Scripture is no more likely to be right than the understanding of Adventists in Brazil, Zambia, or Malaysia.
Only the multi-cultural world church, dependent on the Word of God and controlled by the Holy Spirit, is capable of avoiding schism. As long as American Adventists unthinkingly assert the primacy of their culture, the world church will simply become tired of listening.
When the Jews complained about salvation coming directly from Jesus, He said, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘and they will all be taught by God’” (John 6:43-45).
Marcus Sheffield is a Professor of English at Southern Adventist University.