I was sitting on the beach, chatting with a friend on a sunny Sabbath afternoon. My friend has a Pacific Island background, which prompted me to mention his cultural advantages when it comes to understanding the Bible. He gave me a bewildered look that suggested he’d never seen it that way.
Western culture—postmodern, wealthy, sedentary, educated, individualistic—is about as far from the cultural context of the Bible as it can be.
So, in honour of the 80 per cent of Adventists in the South Pacific Division who live in or hail from the Pacific Islands, let me explain.
There are a lot of parallels between the lifestyle and cultures of the ancient Middle East and traditional Pacific ways—more, in fact, than there are with Anglo-European cultures. Consider. People in Bible times mostly built houses out of locally available materials, lived in villages and ate from their gardens, their flocks and local markets. In hard times they went without meals; other times they feasted on freshly caught fish or sheep roasted on a spit. If they wanted to get water, they had to walk. If they had to travel, the walk might take days.
Ancient Middle Eastern cultures were very status conscious. Women were very much second-class citizens and religious leaders were given great respect. Most people couldn’t read and had to rely on these leaders to explain the Scriptures to them. Anthropologists would describe these cultures as being driven by “honour and shame”.
Take a fresh look at popular Bible stories through Pacific eyes. Can you see the village elders disapproving of teenage Mary’s pregnancy? No wonder she escaped to her cousin’s house in another village. If Mary was in Samoa today, she might end up in a village like Vaitele Fou, populated by people exiled from their home villages.
What about Zacchaeus? In my Anglo-Australian culture, his pariah status makes little sense. But what if I imagine him as a PNG man who worked his way up the management ranks of a foreign mining company in his home province? How would his wantoks feel if Zacchaeus earned “consultant fees” of millions of kina while fleecing them of their traditional land?
Can you see a respected Tongan chief lifting his tupenu to expose his legs and running through the village to embrace his prodigal son? It’s a picture of God the Father at His most vulnerable—casting aside His reputation in reckless love.
The Bible is not a European book. It took centuries for it to be printed in English. For most of history its stories were conveyed through oral tradition or by reading aloud. Bible study was a community discipline, not an individual one. Western culture—postmodern, wealthy, sedentary, educated, individualistic—is about as far from the cultural context of the Bible as it can be.
Those of us within that culture—in Australia, New Zealand and the rapidly developing population centres of the Pacific—need to be aware of the vast gulf that separates us from the mindset of the Bible’s first readers. It’s too easy to interpret the Scriptures through our own cultural lens, and miss basic truths.
On the other hand, those of us who are closely tied to traditional Pacific cultures have an extra responsibility to understand the Bible at a deep cultural level. And not just to understand, but to apply it to our lives, our families and our churches. The way Jesus challenged the culture of His day should take on extra weight when we realise how close it was to our cultures. What did Jesus say about leadership and status? How did He deal with the politics of oppression, corruption and violence? How did He treat despised ethnic groups, the disabled, women and children? What picture of the Father did He paint when God was seen as judgemental and angry?
It’s time to take a fresh look at what Jesus says is really most important in life. It’s time to read the Bible through South Pacific eyes.
Kent Kingston is assistant editor of RECORD and spent some years of his childhood in Papua New Guinea.