Cultural, Judicial & Relational
Brian McLaren suggests several “compliments that modern Christians tried to pay to the Bible that may have actually done it violence and distorted the way we view scripture. Among them, he suggests:
We compared the Bible to things we value highly. Think encyclopedias (books with answers to everything), blueprints (how-to manuals), scientific formulae (universal laws), constitutions and annotated codes (rule books), and the like…
McLaren goes on to propose:
We presented the Bible as a repository of sacred propositions and abstractions. Which was natural, for we were moderns—children of the 18th century enlightenment—so we loved abstractions and propositions. Our sermons tended to exegete texts in such a way that stories, poetry, and biography (among other features of the Bible)—the “chaff” were sifted out, while the “wheat” of doctrines were saved…
In his typically simple, self-deprecating and endearing (if overly parenthetical) style, McLaren points to one of the key issues here. With good intentions, we constructed our own distortion-inducing, culturally-influenced lenses. The problem however, is not that our interpretations are influenced by our culture. It’s that, in good “modern” form, they claim not to be. As Rob Bell puts it:
The idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance. To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of my own culture and background or issues into it and come out with a “pure” or “exact” meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy. 
The interesting thing is that the Bible never claims to be agenda or perspective free or even that it somehow stands outside of cultural influence. To the contrary, its variety of authors, literary styles and genres virtually shout the opposite (not to mention the occasional nature of the epistles and the multiple perspectives given by the gospels). What it does claim to be is “inspired”. The Bible speaks of itself as being inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, which apparently does not wipe it clean of perspectives, culture, and agendas. Under the banner of the modern ethos, we tried to read the Bible as if it were a modern text applying interpretive criteria to it that seem nonsensical when we consider that the text is located in the time and culture in which it was actually written. In true modern fashion, we turned it into a judicial treatise written primarily to individuals. Thus, it was cast as a book of laws/rules to be followed in order to save individuals from Hell. This judicial reading mines the text for the rules. We get tripped up a bit when we see the rules against legalism…so we propose a form of grace that is little more than a new legalism with a shorter list of rules that “really count.” This foundation becomes shaky when we consider that the Bible is a communal book. It is written primarily to groups of people. Most of the NT documents are actually addressed to communities and most of the pronouns used in the text are plural. It becomes shakier still when we consider that it is quite difficult to impose the judicial reading we have become accustomed to, when there appears to be no real concept of Hell as punishment for breaking the “law” (or as afterlife as a motivation for keeping it) in the OT narrative. The NT does indeed seem to point to an afterlife and to different experiences of/in that afterlife based on the way this present life is lived. However, it seems to come out of a different construct all together. Stanley Grenz defines this alternate construct as follows:
We may summarize God’s intention for the world by employing the term “community.” Just as the triune God is the eternal fellowship of the Trinitarian members, so also God’s purpose for creation is that the world participate in “community.” …Taken as a whole the Bible asserts that God directs his program to the bringing about of community in the highest sense of the word—a redeemed people, living within a renewed creation, enjoying the presence of their God.
Thus, with Grenz and many others, I’d like to suggest a different lens. While the judicial lens most of us have become accustomed to does seem to simplify some things, it complicates and distorts others beyond recognition (a situation that is further complicated by the modern notion that it isn’t a lens at all). Instead, I propose a relational lens or, stated differently, a relational reading of Scripture (and the world). As we will see, the contrast between these two views is striking.