September 3, 2014

There Is No “Me and Jesus” in the Bible

Misreading

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien
IVP Books (2012)

Part Two of a series.

One major impediment Westerners have in reading the Bible and practicing the Christian faith is our individualistic perspective. For the Bible was written in a much more collectivist culture and it reflects that orientation.

My (Randy’s) anthropology professor worked in a remote tribal area for years. His village friends gave him a nickname that meant, “Man who needs no one.” This would be a positive American trait, but they were not intending to compliment him.”

In this age of accessible transportation, many have traveled for business or pleasure, or on mission trips that have exposed them to different cultures. It is common for folks to express how eye-opening such experiences can be. I would affirm that, but found it even more of an epiphany when I hosted a friend from India here in the States. I remember one entire day of driving him around our city to visit with various people. It was just the two of us riding in the car for hours, interspersed with short meetings, usually with individuals in office buildings. After a particularly long stretch of driving I asked my friend, “Well, what do you think of the U.S.?” In essence he replied, “It’s ok for a visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

It struck me immediately that he was feeling isolated and lonely here. Thinking back to my experiences with him in India, I realized that, in his natural setting, he was rarely alone or in a setting that was not filled with crowds of people. His clinic is attached to his home, so he never really leaves his work or his patients. His mother and several other extended family members live with him, and there are neighbors and friends and merchants and hired workers in and out of his home all day. The streets of the city where he lives are constantly crowded with people, animals, and every manner of vehicle. If he wants some “me” time, he has to intentionally seek solitude (which, amazingly to me, he seems to need far less often that someone like myself) by leaving town for awhile.

As societies become more technologically sophisticated they inevitably become more individualistic. This leads to the “losing my religion” phenomenon we have been talking about in recent days, for Christianity is not an individualistic faith. And as the authors say, “It is difficult to present the values of a collectivist culture in a positive light to Western hearers.” What is a virtue in one society is often considered a vice in the other. This is extremely important to grasp, for it means that the deep presuppositions and outlooks that form us as individualistic people in the contemporary world do not reflect the cultural ethos represented in Scripture.

We do not, cannot read the Bible accurately until we face up to these blinders.

12tribesThe authors show how we have westernized and individualized the Christmas story into a tale of a small nuclear family who traveled alone and overcame personal challenges to bring the Christ-child into the world. In reality, it likely happened in the context of a clan of relatives: “The birth of Jesus was no solitary event witnessed only by the doting parents in the quiet of a cattle fold. It was likely a noisy, bustling event attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.”

We imagine Paul in terms of romanticism’s ideal: the lone writer, agonizing over his words and pouring out his heart under God’s inspiration to express profound spiritual ideals. However, “Paul would not have locked himself away in some private room to write. …He more likely would have sat in a public place: the breezy, well-lit atrium of a prosperous home like Lydia’s or in an upstairs balconied apartment. Family and friends walking by would have stopped to listen [as he dictated out loud to his secretary] (ancients read out loud) and to offer advice (it shows you care).”

We routinely ignore the NT testimony to the fact that Paul had co-authors and that he always functioned as part of a team when he was able to do so. Many of the NT epistles were probably collaborative efforts as Paul and his partners discussed the needs of the congregations they were addressing and how to deal with them.

Richards and O’Brien also discuss the radically different perspective that collectivist cultures have about conversion and religious faith. “We are used to our decisions, and thus our conversion, being personal and private affairs.” However, the NT records household conversions. And more collective societies still have this perspective. They cite Duane Elmer, a missionary who testified:

…when he shared Christ  with Asian adults he “was constantly told that they could not make a decision to follow Christ without asking a parent, uncle, aunt or all three.” At first he thought this was an evasive maneuver, a ruse to avoid making the hard decision of faith. Over time he realized that this is simply how collectivist cultures work. People “do not make major decisions without talking it over with the proper authority figures in their extended family.” This is hard for us Westerners to understand. We believe they are simply doing what the authority figure(s) said and not making decisions for themselves. My (Randy’s) Asian friend speaks of his conversion this way: “My father is wiser than I am. If he says Jesus is better, then I know Jesus is better.” My friend has a faith as strong and rooted as mine. His certitude about Jesus came a different way than mine, but it as firm.

One of the most common ways we misread the Bible through Western, individualistic eyes involves our failure to understand the plural pronouns in the NT. In English, we use the word “you” in both singular and plural contexts. Therefore, we regularly misread teachings and instructions which are directed to entire congregations as being spoken to “me” as an individual.

In my view, this is one of the great issues in Biblical interpretation and its application to the Christian faith — How do we translate the words of Scripture that reflect a way of life much different than we know in our own individualistic culture and apply them to our lives and churches today?

Comments

  1. But we just sang that song by Jesus Culture in church that says God makes all things work together for MY good. I suppose you’re going to tell me that isn’t true. :roll:

    • Ugh…that song (and band…but that’s another topic).

      I have to give our music leaders big kudos for replacing some of the 1st Person phrasing with more communal ones our songs. There is something about realizing how much our individualistic culture has infected the church when you’re singing.

      We really do learn our theology through music. If all we hear is about “Me and Jesus,” we’ll respond accordingly.

      • My counter-argument is perhaps personal preference, but I often have difficulty singing a song in a collective voice because I’m not sure how many of the people around me really believe what they’re singing.

        “We lift You up.”

        What if half the people in the congregation have no idea what that means, or aren’t really lifting Him up, or what if I’m just going through the motions that morning? To me, collective/corporate songs feel a bit phony.

        So truth be told, I’d rather sing songs with individualistic lyrics. I can sing them for myself, in truth and honesty, and adjusting to where my relationship with God is at the moment. For example, I’ve often changed the above lyric to “Help me to want to lift You up.”

        • Please forgive me for asking, but why are you concerned about what the people around you “really believe”? That seems an odd thing to be thinking about during worship.

          • Well, if I’m singing a song as a collective, I guess I can’t help but wonder how the collective really believes in what they are singing. If I sing a song with 150 others that proclaims, “We surrender it all to You,” is it wrong to wonder how many of the 150 really are surrending their all to Him? Especially when I ask myself that question and answer it honestly?

          • Marcus Johnson says:

            I think that if someone is looking for a church community to call home, it is especially important to consider how well the people in the congregation (especially the established members) understand and make meaning of the words sung in their songs. If it turns out that a community is more style than substance, then that might be a good sign to move on.

            Also, worship leaders/directors should probably be concerned about what the church really believes (I would rather put it as “what people around me understand/how people around me make meaning of what is sung”). I have been to several worship services in which worship leaders don’t consider the relevance of the songs to the community, or the significance of the lyrics to the Scripture, or the sermon. The result is often this really cool concert (or a really lousy concert) of which no one can make any real meaning.

            Rick Ro., is that what you’re getting at?

        • Think about it though: is it more disturbing that someone is singing “we believe” and might not believe, or to be singing lyrics that imply that “we” is of little consequence?

    • For some reason, I feel compelled to quote Wendell Barry as a counterpoint:

      Say that your main crop is the forest
      that you did not plant,
      that you will not live to harvest.

      -From the Mad Farmer Liberation Front

    • Although there is no “I” in “team”, but there is one in “bible”.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Problem is, today you only hear the word “collectivist” from the lips of the disciples of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. And both carry a lot of baggage.

    • Yes. And if I dare say it, this blog is itself a recovery place for INDIVIDUALS damaged by unhealthy Christian COMMUNITIES.

    • Bingo, HUG. The focus of Christian “community” was really follow the leader, give your money and be good little socialists by obeying the church government.

      Another problem I have with this is people check their brains at the church door and want the leaders to care for their souls. More entitlement. Government care for me phyically, church care for me spiritually.

      Personally, I don’t there is much individual thinking, studying and praying going on in many churches. Most have become cult of personality or social gospel centers.

      • What churches have you visited that you base this (rather sweeping) assumption upon?? Denomination and size are of particular interest….

    • Corporate or common might be better than “collective”. All of these words have gathered negative connotations in American English.

      It is odd that many evangelicals emphasize individual, pietistic worship but devalue individual vocational calls in order to push members to spend their time and attention on church activities, while sacramental, liturgical worship emphasizes corporate worship and common declarations of faith while focusing on demonstrating that faith through personal vocation (gathering and scattering).

      • Thomas Merton had some excellent articles on the differences between commonality and communism. The point, I think, being that we have difficulty coming to terms with the ideas of the New Testament not merely because they are alien, but because our own language has created barriers that make apprehending the Christina ideal of community difficult. Martin brings up a good point – many of those pushing “community” in recent times are really pushing a kind of authoritarianism. They use the right words, but to the wrong ends. I think dumb ox points to an important distinction as well. In Paul’s writings, at least, the emphasis seems to be upon unity in corporate worship empowering individual expressions of faith through vocation. This alien paradigm also explains why the New Testament seems to have some very harsh words for those who sin openly in the church (such as the death penalty for practicing the Lord’s Supper in a way that demeaned other believers), while having an almost laissez faire approach to sins outside the church.

  3. “And as the authors say, ‘It is difficult to present the values of a collectivist culture in a positive light to Western hearers’.” As an illustration of that, here is the introduction to a series of short books on political and cultural topics:

    “Encounter Broadsides make the case for liberty and the institutions of democratic capitalism at a time when they are under siege from the resurgence of collectivist sentiment.”

    Note that liberty and collectivism are assumed to oppose one another. Two conclusions must follow (from their point of view). Either the Gospel that claims to set me free is not collectivist, or, if it is, it isn’t the good news of release to the captives that it claims to be. We have a lot to learn.

    • Damaris, many have argued that the gospel was restored in the Protestant Reformation and that this gospel, along with a number of societal and cultural changes in technology, politics, and so on, paved the way for the modern world, which has grown increasingly individualistic and focused on individual freedom and rights.

      Which begs the question: Is the gospel responsible, to some extent, for changing the world from its more collectivist expressions in the ancient world to its more individualistic expressions in today’s world?

      • Which gospel were you referring to? The first century Jewish one, the fourth century Greek one, the sixteenth century German one, or the current American one? (Or Indian, Ethiopian, Chinese, Huron . . .) :-)

        But to answer your question, I think yes, the Good News of Jesus Christ gives worth to individuals that most of them did not have before. It’s clear when we read the gospels, and even the epistles, that not just groups but individuals are valued. But are they valued solely as individuals or as representatives of a group? The Syro-Phoenician woman is a vibrant character, but she also represents Jesus’ ultimate welcome to her non-Jewish people.

        So many of these seeming “either-or” contradictions are resolved in God’s embracing “both-and.” But for here and now, you and the book are correct to challenge our extreme individualism — at the least because it gets in the way of our understanding the original intent of the Gospels.

      • Chaplain Mike writes: “Which begs the question: Is the gospel responsible, to some extent, for changing the world from its more collectivist expressions in the ancient world to its more individualistic expressions in today’s world?”

        I often wonder this very question. I think “to some extent” yes this is true. “…when he shared Christ with Asian adults he ‘was constantly told that they could not make a decision to follow Christ without asking a parent, uncle, aunt or all three.’” But there are accounts in the gospels, and in Jesus’ teachings where individuals became Christians without the family. Jesus even said that He himself would divide families, mother-in-law from daughter-in-law, etc. Also, in today’s culture that has already been individualized and has so many dysfunctional families, relatives may not be the best source of wisdom or advice.

        But yes, I agree with Damaris that putting things into perspective helps us understand the text better. “Give US this day our daily bread.”

        • At the same time, you also see a point in Acts (or maybe more than one point–this is just off the top of my head) where Paul persuades someone to convert, and then it says that their whole household was baptized. Not that this contradicts your point or anything; it just reinforces that the Gospel was first proclaimed to a culture that was much more collectivist than ours.

      • Randy Thompson says:

        Regarding Chaplain Mike’s comments:

        Is the gospel responsible, to some extent, for changing the world from its more collectivist expressions in the ancient world to its more individualistic expressions in today’s world?

        The great 19th century sociologist Max Weber would argue that it is. The title of one of his most interesting books gives you an idea of what he thought: “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

        As Protestantism became less about a grace-based relationship with God in Christ and more an “ethic,” the ethic paved the way individualistic capitalism. The other-worldly (and spiritual) discipline of the Gospel gave way to the this-worldly discipline of attaining wealth. In other words, other-worldly asceticism gave way to this-worldly asceticism.

        As to how Protestantism got from grace-based relationship with God in Christ to an ethic, Weber has another useful idea, what he called the “routinization of charisma.” What is spiritually vibrant and alive for one generation, becomes the next generation’s routine.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        I think it may be a combination of things. Certainly the Gospel is part of it, but so is the Renaissance, Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, etc. Just as the Renaissance was necessary for the Reformation, so the Enlightenment and these other things were part of how the Gospel is interpreted.

  4. Thanks, CM. Good thoughts and challenges.

    Interesting how in our “non-collectivist” culture we have personalized identity and alienation.

    T

  5. It’s not grammatically correct, but the South could help us out if we would use their “you all” when the Greek pronoun calls for it.

    • That’d be y’all, y’all. :)

      Context matters.

      • Margaret Catherine says:

        That’d be y’all, *all* y’all. Don’t forget the intensifier. :)

        • That Other Jean says:

          Yep. Y’all is more-or-less singular; all y’all means “everybody,” or at least “everybody present.”

          • Brianthedad says:

            I would say y’all is not singular, except when misused by screenwriters and actresses in badly stereotypical tv shows and movies. It can be addressed to a singular person, but then usually refers to the person and their family or the person and the group that is with them. My $0.02 from the heart of Dixie. .

    • Margaret Catherine says:

      In the emphatic, it’s “all y’all”. But you guys know, the North has its own fix… :)

    • In my neighborhood in Boston, the plural of “you” is “yous” (pronounced more like “yooz”) I don’t see why we couldn’t use it in the next Bible translation :)

    • It’s grammatically correct here in Texas, and I used it when I taught New Testament Greek. :)

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      “Youse folks” works just as well.

    • Mayor McGuinness says:

      If from Texas you can “all y’all” which is different than simply y’all.

      • Mayor McGuinness says:

        Oh I see all y’all already covered this earlier in over yonder response posts. Dang.

  6. Steve Newell says:

    What I find interesting is that many will go back to look at the writings of the “Foundering Fathers” support their understanding of the US Constitution since they want to use “original intent” in how this document should be interpreted in today’s culture. Do these same people also go back on the writings of the “Early Church Fathers” to understand how we are to understand Holy Scripture?

    I find that reading the writings of the Early Church Fathers is very beneficial and very challenging. There are issues that they had to deal with that similar to what we face today. We can gain much through their wisdom.

    • No one seems interested in dusty old books by dead guys… .especially not if they have their very own “new and improved and divinely inspired” interpretation of scripture. It is the reason many of us are Roman Catholic or Orthodox…..we didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Customs change, God does not. The words of the apostles and early church fathers are as valid in 2013 as they were in 113….as long as we (or someone who is assisting our learning) can get the language AND ITS NUANCES correct and understandable from their context to ours.

      {As an aside, I “got” the Good Shepard” idea after a week on a sheep farm. The are stupid and fithly beasts, and this from a former 4-H champion who loves animals in general! God must love us in our smelly ignorance a LOT to still protect and guide us with care.]

  7. In answer to your question, CM, by renewing our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. We have free will written into our souls but there is no freedom without responsibility to others. We were made out of God’s desire for relationship, to have co-creators. Therefore, there is no “me & Jesus” but me, Jesus & others. If we are only concerned for our personal salvation, then the God we serve is NOT the God that Jesus called Father.

  8. The Lord calls us, gathers us, enlightens us, and sanctifies us in the one, true faith.

    He brings us together each week with our new family. I don’t see how anyone could be a lone-ranger type Christian. Not if they are worshipping regularly.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Yet when we turn the Gospel into Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation, what other type of Christians than “lone rangers” will result?

      • Joseph (the original) says:

        but we do get a glimpse of just how God views ‘individualism’ or individuals from this scripture:

        Revelation 2:17
        He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.

  9. Charles Joshua says:

    “How do we translate the words of Scripture that reflect a way of life much different than we know in our own individualistic culture and apply them to our lives and churches today?”

    What about adults (believers) with social anxiety disorder and/or some form of autism — where some kind of individualism comes in the form of safe refuge in God’s Word, sometimes, even from other Christians?

    • James the Mad says:

      The flip side of that coin is, to what degree do we allow the exceptions to drive the rules? Should we throw out the early church’s understanding of the gospel simply because of an autistic individual?

      A social culture should certainly be able to handle exceptional individuals without tearing apart basic group dynamics. As I’ve seen recently in the Philippines, that’s part of a strong social culture – they know how to take care of their own, including the exceptions, without having a detrimental affect on the culture as a whole.

  10. I agree with this post in theory, but to be honest, I’m still not sure how to apply it in practice. Being westernersand being totally immersed in those values, I’m not sure how well we can remove ourselves from them. For example, if we heard of a church that encouraged its members to bring every major decision they make before the congregation, many would probably consider that church overly authoritarian at best and something like a cult at worst. In theory I would like to be part of a close-knit church community, but in practice, I find this a very rare thing in America. For one thing, we’re a very mobile society, and people are always moving around. My wife and I moved two years ago, and I can’t say we really feel like we are totally immersed where we’re living at the moment.

    Trying to find a church community when you come in not knowing anyone seems almost like an impossibility. It’s not that we want to be lone ranger Christians, to use the term someone used above, it’s just that I feel that we’ve been forced to. Other than being assertive to the point of almost being rude, I think it’s really hard to get involved in most churches. I can’t tell how many visitor cards I’ve filled out, and most of the time the only response you get is a form letter email.

    So my question is if this true, what does it look like in America? Americans, Christians included, value their personal freedom, and I just don’t see a wholesale attitude in this front as all that possible.

    • Your questions are the same as mine. I don’t think I’m saying one culture is better than another in some kind of absolute sense — both have good and bad points. The question is: how do we translate and apply instructions and teachings that come from one type of culture into another. Most of us do not ask this question because we do not understand the cultural disconnect we have when reading the Bible.

      • Joseph (the original) says:

        is it too broad of a generalization to say that more primitive cultures are much more ‘communal’ only because that is the only way to ensure safety, security, provision, etc. neither Paul nor Jesus really sought out the equivalent of the survivalist or the religious monastic (if there was such a type).

        food production/preparation, social interaction, group activities seen more practical than simply a lifestyle choice 2000 years ago. for those cultures and/or big city living conditions that do not provide an individualistic option were not even the norm back in Jesus’ day. modern technology does allow us greater opportunities for voluntary isolation, so we may be considering more of the technological advances that are much more influential than just a comparison to communal dynamics ‘then’ vs. ‘now’.

        am i making sense? my bad head cold has me wondering if i am thinking straight since my sinuses are so clogged up i can’t even hear myself think…

  11. “How do we translate the words of Scripture…”

    “Y’all” has already been mentioned, but how about “yous guys,” “y’uns,” “you lot”? There are passages that say “you all”, but those are probably already that way in the Greek. Of course, a KJV only argument could be made that we already have a second person plural, “ye.”

    • “Ye” in old english was both singlular and plural, just like “you” is used today.

      See for example John 3:7 KJV.

      “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” Both thee and ye are singular.

      • Michael, thanks for the correction. I remember something about ye being plural and Googled it before I posted this. The link I clicked on mentioned ye as plural. Time to ditch the internet. ;)

        • I believe in KJV English Y – “ye” and “you” and “your” and “yours” – is plural and T – “thee” and “thou” and “thy” and “thine” – is singular. Keep the Internet.

      • “Ye” (Greek humas) in John 3:7 KJV (this verse) is plural.

        MH QAUMASHiS hOTI EIPON SOI: DEI hUMAS GENNHQHNAI ANWQEN.

        H = eta Q = theta W = omega i = iota subscript

        Not marvel-you (singular) that I-said to-you (singular): It-is-necessary you (plural) to-be-born again.

  12. I’d raise this every year when I taught Greek. The phrase ?? ???? (“in you (plural)”) has a radically different meaning when you use in in the internal, distributive sense (“within each of you”) or in the external, collective sense (“among you”).

    “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works [within each of you or among you?] to will and to act…”

    “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ [within each of you or among you?], the hope of glory.”

    “…he who began a good work [within each of you or among you?] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

    • So in your view what “sense” do you think is appropriate for these verses?

      • Honestly I don’t know. To do a semantic study on such a common phrase as en humin would likely be dissertation-worthy. And likely what that study would turn up is that both options are valid and context dictates which is intended. Unfortunately, in these situations context often tells us bupkus. It certainly could be a both/and situation; I was just happy to broaden the students’ interpretive domain to include “among you” as a legitimate option. I’d be really curious to see if there has been any scholarly work along these lines.

        • Interesting. I also think of Luke 17:21

          “nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is [within each of you or among you?]“

    • And then there’s Galatians 1:16,24 where we have first (in 1:16) en emoi and then en tois ethnesin and then finally in 1:24 en emoi again, but with an obviously different meaning from the phrase in 1:16. One could probably accurately translate those as “to me” “among (or “to”) the Gentiles” and “because of me.”

  13. I disagree a bit with the statement that Christianity isn’t an individualistic faith, at least not to the extent that is proposed in this article. The gospel accounts are filled with instances of Jesus’ encounters with individuals and his addressing that person’s needs and sin. The Bible, especially the Gospels (Matthew 24 comes to mind), seems at times to be very individualistic, very much a “YOU as an INDIVIDUAL need to make a choice, be prepared, etc. etc.” Jesus’ angriest moments are in response to a religious community who thought they were a Godly community. Jesus rarely showed anger at an individual, especially one who was seeking. And really…my household’s faith will absolutely NOT save everyone in my household. Just because my father believes does not mean that I will be saved.

    God loved the world (collective)…so that whoever (individual) believes in Him shall not perish.

    As I’ve matured in my walk with Jesus, I do think my walk is LESS about me than it is about God. I also see how COMMUNITY (aka family, friends AND church) is an important part of my walk. But I find it difficult to knock the individual aspect of the Good News. It’s there, and hard to deny.

    • This makes sense. It seems that God pursues us as individuals, redeems us, THEN, once we as individuals are overflowing in God’s Grace through faith in Jesus, its less and less about ourselves and more and more about others.

      • But if you lived in a culture that thought more in terms of family, clan, and tribal identity, you never would have, nor could have, written that sentence.

        • Interesting to think about this in light of Luke 14:26

          “If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison–your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.”

          • Bingo! And that’s Jesus speaking.

          • First, don’t miss the big idea. I am not, nor are the authors saying that a collectivist culture is better than an individualist culture. Each has good and bad. Nor is it that God only works in collective ways and not with individuals. Of course not!

            The point is that those who wrote the Bible did so from certain cultural perspectives — in this case their societies were much more based on family, clan, and tribe relationships than ours is. If we don’t recognize that, we may easily misread what they’ve written.

            The next inevitable question is: how do we apply what they wrote in our cultural setting, which is quite different than theirs?

          • In our society where it is easy to think individualistically, it would seem that the challenge is to put Jesus before ourselves and He changes us “lone rangers” to think for collectively. So its the same Truth seemingly working in reverse.

          • “…Hate everyone else by comparison” This verse speaks to the issue of Christ as priority, it’s not really an apologetic for an individualistic worldview. The goal is that people will change their allegiance, who they’re in union with. We’re not being given a picture of individuals cutting themselves off from the father and mother so they can go be more individualistic “for Christ” or something. We’re being given a picture of a new body forming: the one man, Christ, as the head, is drawing people away from family allegiances (so central in semitic culture) and into the union, the ecclesia, of his own people, around Christ himself.

            The bottom line is that human community is just not designed as just a spray of individuals, as western moderns think. Fish swim, birds fly, and peoples are one. Even in individualistic west this is true, we’re just in denial. The evidence is everywhere, look at the elections for crying out loud!! If God did not design things this way, it would have been good for Adam to be alone. Procreation would not require union. The goal of all things would not be that everything be united to/in Christ. Christ’s prayer would not have been that we be one as he and his Father are one. And the Bible would not have been written over a multi-thousand year period to tell the story of a multipersonal unified God and a multi-personal unified human: the ecclesia- God’s chosen people (Not chosen “persons”).

          • Nate, it may also be read as a challenge to the person with a collectivist culture mentality that one’s connection to Jesus and God’s family trumps the family, clan, and tribal loyalties of that culture.

            Jesus’ words challenge all human cultures in one way or another.

          • “We’re being given a picture of a new body forming: the one man, Christ, as the head, is drawing people away from family allegiances (so central in semitic culture) and into the union, the ecclesia, of his own people, around Christ himself.”

            Nate, agreed. At the same time though it takes a “personal” decision everyday to either yield to Christ as our (each single one of us) Lord or not. Even though we are part of the Body of Christ, we are still accountable as “individuals” to God for our own choices, no? We repent for our own personal sins, have our own unique experiences, and thank Him for His unique personal blessings, as one Body, all under the Lordship of Christ.

          • Joel,

            I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m denying human individuality when I say this, but no, I don’t think we make “personal decisions” at all. I think we are intrinsically saturated by our influences, largely that means community. The very fact that you described the decision to yield “to Christ” is an example. Christ is there, in the community. We yield to him. That’s the collective nature of decision making. It’s a decision that isn’t really best described as personal, becuase it’s not a decision for our own personhood, primarily. The nature of this yielding is an accord among members- a oneness with Christ (and by extension, his church).

          • Nate,

            But by “yielding” to Christ, or choosing dying to ourselves, isn’t that a “personal” choice we make. Aren’t we as believers “driven” to Christ because we are keenly aware for our own sinful nature (Romans 7)? And that’s when we decide as individuals that we MUST surrender to Christ?

          • “The very fact that you described the decision to yield “to Christ” is an example. Christ is there, in the community. We yield to him. That’s the collective nature of decision making. It’s a decision that isn’t really best described as personal, becuase it’s not a decision for our own personhood, primarily”

            Nate,

            I get it. I see what you are saying. Pardon my thick-headedness. My brain comes around sooner or later. :)

          • Chaplain Mike- I wholeheartedly agree, he’s making a very sharp critique of the collectivism of Israel, which had gone quite sour (“we’re better than those filthy outsiders!”).

            Joel – If by “personal choice” you mean “we are persons, and we’re making a choice,” then sure. I just don’t think it imples individualism. I don’t think we can call conversion or yielding individualistic at all. We’re the product of influences. Sin, for instance, while it’s something I may be guilty of, is not something I invented. I’m swept along in a human tide of corruption that started with the Adam/Eve choice-making “collective.” It’s a human social problem- it’s spreads through societies like a disease, and I’m caught up in it. Likewise, the choice I make to repent is also a choice that’s prompted by someone else- a multi-personal impetus. I had to hear the Gospel, right? I didn’t invent that either. (I think of the Gospel almost as an indwelling virus, driving to make contact, being passed from person to person.) Christ’s will did the work of the Gospel, the church’s will witnesses it, and finally the my will responds. Put like that, there are at least 3 wills involved in making the choice. We may each be most aware of our own will, because as sinners we’re self-involved. But if we’re lucky, we realize later that we need to unlearn our me-centrism and autonomy, because it’s all a delusion anyway.

            The flaw in the ‘me and God’ paradigm is, while that may not always be exactly untrue, it’s not the dynamic that is emphasized in Scripture, and it isn’t enough of an impetus to really take us where we need to go. The impetus we need is God’s plan, high and wide, for all creation, and in it a renewed people, with Christ dwelling at the center. And from there, the local church as an expression of Christ, with Christ in its midst. The individual finds his unique place in the ecclesia, the temple/body/bride/’one new man,’ and the Kingdom of God spreads as a movement. This ‘ecclesial’ nature of salvation/obedience is its most underrepresented dynamic in our culture; and far more emphasized in Scripture, I would argue, than the individual episodes of it.

          • Nate, thanks for taking the time to explain this. I see that it’s not as simple as “me and God”.

    • The point is it’s a collectivist culture. That doesn’t mean people never do things alone. It also doesn’t mean nobody has an identity, or that faith influences the whole group every time. It means that it’s a collectivist culture. Addressing a people as their King, Jesus is saying something with VASTLY different implications than if he were to simply have a series of personal encounters with a cluster of individuals.

      The entire story of the Bible is the story of God and a people. The Gospels are the Story of Jesus and Israel, and the New Israel.

      Also, there is NO such thing as anyone’s “personal faith” as in, an attribute primarily of that individual. We need to jettison language like this because no matter how you came to faith, you represent a facet of a diamond,. A brick in a house. You don’t have all the faith, and you don’t have enough faith. The Church has faith, and is the one that is designed to know Christ fully and image him fully. Not you. Not me. There’s no way to think of faith as a “personal decision” because NO decision anyone makes doesn’t have immediate implications for the collective to which they belong, and no personal decision is adequate to describe the goal God has for his redemptive plan.

      Our response to this issue will dictate whether we see the church as bunch personally saved people who sort of share a common compartment of life here and there out of necessity, or a single living organism that is designed to work, each part with a function for the whole, for the Kingdom of God.

  14. Aunt Bette Ann says:

    The reaction I have to the Gospel is very simple. If Jesus never does another thing for me in all my life but pay my way to heaven, He has done far more than I deserve.

  15. Here’s a sampling from ten Psalms. Only two of them are “communal” in nature; the other eight are very individualistic.

    Psalm 13:6 – “I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.”

    Psalm 23:4 – “Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
    I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.”

    Psalm 35:1 – “Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me;
    fight against those who fight against me.”

    Psalm 47:3 – “He subdued nations under us,
    peoples under our feet.”

    Psalm 54:1 – “Save me, O God, by your name;
    vindicate me by your might.”

    Psalm 66:20 – “Praise be to God,
    who has not rejected my prayer
    or withheld his love from me!”

    Psalm 79:9 – “Help us, God our Savior,
    for the glory of your name;
    deliver us and forgive our sins
    for your name’s sake.”

    Psalm 92:4 – “For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
    I sing for joy at what your hands have done.”

    Psalm 109:26 – “Help me, Lord my God;
    save me according to your unfailing love.”

    Psalm 119:94 – “Save me, for I am yours;
    I have sought out your precepts.”

    • So how did David think so individualistically in such a collective culture?

      • Exactly. Individualism is rampant throughout the Bible. So I guess what I’m arguing is that there is less of a cultural difference than what is being presented here in this article, and that the statement “There’s no ‘Me and Jesus’ in the Bible” is way too strong. In fact, I’d argue that at a very basic level, it’s ALL about me and Jesus! If that’s not the starting point, I don’t know where to go!

        • I think you’re making a bit too much of the first person pronoun in the psalms you posted above. The issue isn’t really that people couldn’t ever think or speak for themselves. The issue is what the concept of “self” meant. Much of our modern idea of how we define what an individual is is rooted in the Enlightenment. One major idea that arose in during this time was the idea was self-determination and an individual’s right to govern himself. It just so happened that a lot of this was running parallel with the Reformation, and the two movement co-mingled to create a Christianity where personal salvation isn’t simply part of the faith – it’s the whole reason for faith.

          In historic Christianity, personal faith is defined more as partaking in salvation or being “in Christ”. In its very nature, it focuses not on the individual but on Christ and the Church as a whole. It’s one reason why when we recite the creeds we say “we believe” instead of “I believe”.

          • Exactly. “personal faith” is a chapter, or a sentence in a chapter, of a book. The “book” is the church corporate with, in, and for Christ. You’re not an individualist because you pass through the “sentence” of your own individuality from time to time. Yet you ARE denying the fundamentally corporate nature of the faith when you insist on “me” being the title of the book.

        • Knitting Jenny says:

          Before the Fall man had a personal, individual relationship with his Creator, but sin divided them. Afterward believers’ relationship with God largely depended upon their membership in a covenantal community. Jesus redeemed man and restored his ability to have a personal relationship with the Father through individual repentance and belief, but redeemed individuals can only experience the fullness of the faith within a healthy community of their fellow saints. It’s a balanced “both/and”.

        • Of course David was a king and it would, in theory, be easier for David to think individualistically than the average Israelite in those days, I would guess. All the more of a testimony that He continued to yield to God, even after he really messed up.

        • Keep in mind “individualism” is not simply understanding onesself as an individual. It’s about centrality. Priorities. Referring to yourself in the first person singular doesn’t make you an individualist.

        • I know where to go. Go to the Church. That is where we embrace “the faith” not simply “my faith.” We enter into the faith of the Church, we are born into the family of God, we become fellow citizens with the apostles and prophets, we join the saints and martyrs of all ages in the communion of saints, we receive the promise: “I will be their God and they will be my people, and I will dwell in their midst.”

          • “…where we embrace ‘the faith’ not simply ‘my faith.’”

            Yes, CM. Well said!

          • We are called out of the world as individuals, like Saul; we are called into the perichoresis of the Trinity with the church and the communion of saints, like Paul.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        So how did David think so individualistically in such a collective culture?

        Quoting the Moody Blues, it’s a Question of Balance. The Common Good vs I Gotta Be Me.

        Collectivist cultures (where the group is more important than the individual, like a lot of Asian cultures) are out-of-balance on the side of the Group, and tend to crush individual eccentricity with Collective Conformity.

        Individualist cultures (where the individual is more important than the group, and of which we are the most extreme) are out-of-balance on the side of the Individual, and the sense of any “common good” gets thrown out the window by Indivdual Anarchy.

        • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

          Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries, my favorite preacher, says that when it comes to the Psalms and to the Liturgy, sometimes we gotta learn how to say “I” and mean “we” and sometimes say “we” and mean “I.” That’s really helped me as a classical-BCP-loving-Anglican-Christian

      • He spent a LOT of time alone with the sheep….and then became king with all those perks.

    • Are they? Who is the Psalmist speaking of when he writes “I”? Is it simply himself? If it’s David, keep in mind he’s the sovereign representative of the people of God. God says “I” and yet he’s three-personal. Are we to assume “individualism” there?

  16. There’s an apocryphal story to this effect: An Evangelical Christian while visiting Lancaster County, PA, has a discussion with an Amish man. During their talk, the Evangelical Christian asks the Amish man if he is saved. The Amish man ponders the question for a few minutes, and then borrows a piece of paper and pencil from the Evangelical Christian; he proceeds to write the names and addresses of five or six people on the paper and then hand it back to the Evangelical Christian. The Amish man says, “These are a some people in my church who know me well. You should ask them if I’m saved; they would be able to answer your question better than I can.”

    • Which speaks again to community. I think we have trouble wrapping our heads around the idea of a dozen family members living under one small roof, clustered around neighbors whose homes and lives were similar. Where would go to BE independent? How could the choice of one not influence everyone? And if the one making the choice were the patricarch or matriarch of the extended family, his/her voice of authority and wisdom whould carry much weight and gravitas.

      When I piccture the early church, I think of devout modern Jews around the Shabbat table, with the mystery of G-D and family and clan enterwined together….only the clothes would be different.

  17. I think, instead of making it a translation issue first, we could prioritize the teaching of the principle across the entirety of Scripture. Start by consistently teaching the scope of all of Scripture: that God (multi-personal) having been disobeyed and rejected by Man (collectively) pursues him and generates a people for his purposes and the reunites himself with Man through that people. The goal being that all things are summed up in Christ.

    We could teach about the church. Not simply tell people to go to church, or assume church should look a certain way, but teach about its very nature. To riff on Ephesians 2 a little bit:

    The Gospel creates “one new man in place of the two” by “abolishing the hostility” between them (Jew and Gentile) and then going further to reconcile that man to God and unite them. The individual believers are considered by Paul to be “members of a household.” Further, This “one new man” having been “joined” grows into “a holy temple.” i know of no reference to the church that prioritizes the individuality of its members except for the unity of the whole.

    You’re right, there really is no ‘me and Jesus’ principle in the Bible. This is not a denial of anyone’s individuality. It’s the affirmation that no individuality exists except for the higher purpose of union and oneness across the cosmic design. Union with God. With nature. With one another, creating a single community, and all it’s sub-organisms.

    • BTW, when I used the word “translate” in the post, I wasn’t talking about how to render the original languages into appropriate English, but using the word in a broader sense.

  18. Randy Thompson says:

    The classic formulation of the Trinity is an excellent place to begin a conversation on “individualism” and the “collective.” There is one (!) God, but three persons, and you do not “confuse” the persons! If we have a hard time trying to maintain a balance between a sense of “me” and “us,” it’s because we have a hard time understanding a God whose very existence incorporates both. The doctrine of the Trinity keeps us honest both about self-absorbed individualism and about losing ourselves in the collective. Put more positively, the doctrine of the Trinity allows us to be an “I,” but only in a lower case sense, “i.” Likewise, it makes us look at the forest and see trees.

    I don’t know if anyone here is familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis’s odd friend, Charles Williams, but he spent a fair amount of time on this issue. For Williams, without the group, there could be no real individual self, for the self is the product not only of willing and choosing, but of countless teachers, relatives, neighbors and parents who made that self what it is, for better and for worse. In other words, whatever we know we got from someone else. Williams understood human society, the Christian ideal of which he referred to as “The City,” as a web of interdependent relationships, or the “Coinherence” as he called it, drawing on a technical term of the Church Fathers for the relationships between the persons in the Trinity. Williams saw all of creation as reflecting this web of mutual dependence, and thereby reflecting who God is. For those of you who like footnotes, Williams talks about this stuff in his “He Came Down from Heaven,” which I fear has been long out of print, which is a shame. (It’s been ages and ages since I’ve thought in print about Charles Williams, so if this feels a bit half-baked, sorry!).

  19. The irony is that for all our much vaunted Western independence, we are more dependent on a huge multitude of other people for our daily survival than anyone living in a so-called primitive tribal culture could ever be. We literally depend on millions of other people to deliver our food, supply our gasoline, produce and distribute our electricity, fix our roads, etc., etc., etc. But the networks that supply these necessary goods and services for our survival do so through a grid of almost total anonymity, making invisible most of what so many people do to facilitate our survival. So what we end up with is an illusion of independence. What that independence really amounts to is a vast technological machine worked by enormous numbers of people that provides us with mobility, both physical and abstract, so that we can move away from many familial and social situations that were unalterable givens in earlier societies. There is very little real independence involved, since without the huge apparatus and the many people, our mobility could not be facilitated. But there is a remarkable degree of detachment from direct dependence on familiars and intimates, from given networks as they have existed throughout most of history. We are “freer” because we are able to be less attached; this is sometimes called “alienation.” We pride ourselves on our ostensible “independence,” few of us could survive even a few days without the vast network of civilization supplying our every need. Our independence is an illusion that isolates and alienates us; but who would choose to go back to a situation in which a close network of family and kin circumscribes every detail of our existence? Such a situation can be a prison, which may include systematic and inescapable abuse. That’s why people almost always opt for more mobility when they can, and take advantage of it when societies develop it. None of this of course addresses the question posed at the end of the post. Our churches participate in the same diffusion of resources and dependence that the rest of the society does. You can always go across town to another church when things get unpleasant in the one you’re in now. You have a choice; you’re not dependent; you’re an individual;you’re alienated. To even begin to hear what Scripture has to say to us, we must undertake a huge exercise in humility for which our society systematically handicaps us. “Be still and know that…..”

  20. We can hope that Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) was wrong when he sang:

    “Men go crazy in congregations,
    they only get better one by one….
    One by one….”

  21. I would say that as our society gets more technologically sophisticated, we remain just as religious as before; but our religion becomes less corporate and institutional, and more individualistic, more cafeteria-style, picking and choosing what we like. The way we choose the color we paint our homes, or buy our clothes, etc.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      In other words, more virtual, i.e., disembodied.

      • More disembodied to the degree that it is less corporate and institutional; and more trivialized. Also, I would say it is not technology alone that does this, but rather technology used to implement a marketplace culture, wherein choice is maximized among a virtually infinite variety of goods, including every part of life, from soft drinks to religion. Religious choices inevitably wind up seeming like they are based solely on personal preference, like preference in the color of socks or favorite foods, and so they seem essentially unimportant and totally subjective.

        • My church made a deliberate decision not to advertise, at least at first, in any media format. They didn’t even create Facebook page. We finally got a temporary sign to mark our location (it’s rented space at a school) on Sunday morning for passersby. To this day I don’t know if anyone really finds us through Facebook or the one advertisement they run in the local paper. Almost all of its influence, and growth, has been through interpersonal contact. There certainly maybe flaws at work, and it’s not that you can’t be over-technologized and over-marketed in other ways, but it’s an interesting case study. I know of another church in my town that did the same thing.

  22. Worship which focuses on emotionalism appears to promote individualism but leads to infantile dependence. Sacrament-oriented worship seems to devalue individualism, but provides the means of grace to live an individual life.

  23. There’s a centuries old saying in the Orthodox Church: “We are saved together, but damned alone.”