Culture determines Bible relevance

More and more people are consulting the Bible online. That has allowed researchers to gather new and better information about how people use the Bible. is by far the most used Bible site on the Internet with many Bible versions available in many languages. I use it almost daily because of the many versions it offers and its great search tools. Bible Gateway has published statistics about how people use their site including an infographic part of which is shown here.

missiographic-Global Bible Searches It shows that people from different countries had very marked differences in the attention they gave to different verses and books of the Bible, as you can see. In Indonesia, Ecclesiastes 3 gets a lot of hits. These results are not surprising; one research project in an African country found that almost 80% of sermon texts were drawn from the Old Testament.

While the relevance of the Bible is universal, the perceived relevance of different parts of the Bible varies according to one’s culture. World-renowned historian of Christianity, Professor Andrew Walls, notes that for most Western Christians some parts of the Bible might as well not exist. When was the last time you read Numbers? On the other hand, when the Bible was translated into some languages, the people found the genealogies to be significant, while another group was brought to faith by Acts 17:26-27 when it was first translated into their language.

I have heard preachers exhort their listeners to read all the Bible. While that it a good idea, so is paying more attention to the parts of it that speak most to your life and experience. Many peoples without the Bible in their language also live in places where they suffer severe economic, political and social oppression. Parts of the Old Testament speak directly to that. We should not be surprised or condemning when they read, study and get comfort from those parts more than an affluent American. During the civil rights movement in the United States, many African-Americans drew solace and strength from the parts of the Old Testament that address social and economic oppression. In fact, during the reformation, many Europeans developed their stance against the monarchy, for religious freedom and for the rule of the people from the Old Testament recently translated into their languages.

But there is a problem. It is often relatively affluent and safe Americans who decide what parts of the Bible are translated first for bibleless peoples. In effect, we give our money and our prayers to translate first what is meaningful to us. Be honest, if you had a choice between giving money to support the translation of the Gospel of John or Lamentations, which would you chose?

John Agama, who was a part of expanding Bible translation in Ghana, reading the whole Bible in his language.

John Agama, who was a part of expanding Bible translation in Ghana, reading the whole Bible in his language.

Professor Andrew Walls has also noted that it is only in the Old Testament that the Bible exposes the confrontation between belief in the one true God and the traditional gods of various peoples. He further notes that it is exactly that same confrontation which is happening daily in the lives of Africans today, including in the lives of those who profess Christianity and others who might be interested in hearing about Christian faith. My African Christian friends confirm this to me all the time. Walls implies that the translation of the Old Testament into more African languages is key to the final outcome of that confrontation – a church riddled with traditional practices or one standing faithfully with the one true and living God.

Ghanaians agree; so the plan of the churches in Ghana, on which I am consulting, will include translation of the whole Bible into many Ghanaian languages. It is my hope that Christians elsewhere will stand with them in this endeavor, rather than judging its usefulness only from their own perspective.

You can read more about BibleGateway’s research here.