"That's the point," said I. "If nothing else, it's important to realize how everything in your life shapes and influences the way you think about God and read the Bible."
"Evertyhing?" said another student. "Not everything. This couch doesn't influence the way I think about God and read the Bible."
"Oh, but it does," I said. "Compare your experience of living your whole life sitting on couches to someone who lives in a culture where couches don't exist. The two of you would have a drastically different worldview. One sits down whenever she wants to, and always knows there's a soft, comfortable place to sit. The other doesn't have this luxury, and always has to sit on the floor. Your worldview is going to be different than hers. Yours includes the existence of couches. The other's doesn't. The simple existence of a couch is enough to shape your worldview and influence the way you see the world."
It was fun to see a wave of understanding wash over the students I was with.
What does a couch have to do with the Bible? Nothing, directly, but it's a good example of how we are shaped and formed in ways that we don't even realize. Things that we have taken for granted - that we don't even realize exist because we've become so used to them - play a huge role in our understanding of who God is and what he is like, and in our comprehension of his word to us - even couches.
It's like the old story of two young fish swimming up the stream and they come across an older fish who says to them, "Hey boys, how's the water?" The two young fish go swimming a little further, and then one says to the other, "What's water?"
In the same way that a fish doesn't realize he's swimming in water because it's so common to him, we don't realize we're sitting on couches, driving cars, eating three meals a day, living in a house, having indoor plumbing, drinking clean water, using the internet, exercising religious freedom, talking on a cell phone, listening to music, watching TV, enjoying close family relationships, eating at McDonald's, going to school, going to work, wearing clean clothes, playing video games, running on a treadmill, mowing the lawn, playing baseball, or any number of other things.
All of these things influence the way we see the world, and influence the way we think about God and understand the Bible. But for the most part, we just don't realize it.
Having kids brings a whole new appreciation for the ways in which we are formed. My kids are picking up all kinds of influences in nothing more than the little things that I don't even notice, such as, couches. Or candy. Or whatever. It's amazing what kids pick up, and it's probably even more amazing (and scary) when you think about what kids pick up that the don't even realize they're picking up.
The main goal of practicing good biblical hermeneutics is to have a knowledge of those things we are bringing to the text when we read it. In other words, when we read the Bible, we need to remember all of the ways we have been formed and do our best to not allow those things to skew our understanding of the Bible. This is a losing battle, to be sure, and try as we might we will never be able to complete separate ourselves from all of the influences that dominate our worldviews.
In seminary I learned that the big word for this is self-differentiation - the ability to step outside of oneself and see oneself in truth. That is, how things really are, and why we think the ways we do, and to see those things in our lives that have shaped us and formed us through our experiences. If you take all of these influences, you can, I think, easily be discouraged into thinking that everything in your life is skewed by your biased view of the world. This is true and admittedly it doesn't offer a very true and honest appraisal of life.
But the Christian can find hope in the reality that God plans and ordains our experiences, and is even sovereign over the ways those experiences form us. So are we influenced by couches? Yes, but no more or less than God intends for us to be. There are also some things that God has put in our path in order for us to be formed or shaped in a certain way that is good for us. To be sure, some of the things that have influenced us are good, and some of the presuppositions we bring to our thinking and reading of the Bible are good (such as the presupposition that the Bible is God's word and that everything in it is true).
So in a sense, as we think about the ways we have been formed and are influenced by the world and everything around us, and as we endeavor to shed those things as we seek to worship God in spirit and in truth, we also need to realize that God has given us those experiences uniquely and sovereingly.
In other words, we can praise God for the couch as we think about how it has shaped our worldview.