Friday, January 27, 2012

Seeing the Dragon in Context

I am a dragon. This is the Chinese animal sign applied to everyone born in the season when I first drew breath and those born every cycle of twelve years before and after me. According to Chinese culture, I was born under the zodiac sign of the most magnificent of Chinese animals.

Yet when I was a young Christian, the display of Chinese dragon signs and symbols was disapproved of. They were understood as a symbol of Satan in the Bible – “the great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Rev 12:9). As a result, having Chinese dragon symbols on your clothes for Chinese New Year and sending greeting and invitation cards with such symbols were frowned on. Is such an application being true to God’s Word? I doubt so. We need to understand context and cultural setting when we apply the Bible.

Chinese dragons are seen as auspicious symbols of power and fortune. In the Chinese language, esteemed people are compared favourably with a dragon. It is always seen as good and full of promise and energy. More importantly, it is portrayed as a benevolent creature, never as an enemy of mankind. In contrast, European culture typically depicts the dragon as evil and sinister. It is seen as a destroyer spouting poison or fire and an enemy of man. This European dragon is the creature mentioned in Revelation by John. His symbolism of an animal, known for its malevolent nature to describe Satan, the father of evil, would have left his Greek and Roman readers with no doubt of what he meant.

Thus, we need to be careful in applying the dragon symbol linguistically and across the board in all circumstances. To do so indiscriminately would reduce the Christian faith to mere ritual and superstition. Instead, I believe on the occasions where Chinese culture comes to the fore as in weddings, festivals, auspicious occasions, not only is it not wrong for the dragon symbol to be displayed; it is also good to do so.

It is important to read the Bible with understanding of its context and setting. The Bible can be, has been and will continue to be read to oppress and hurt others, with terrible consequences. The preacher can sometimes preach his own prejudices as if they were the Word of God. One example from history is the white South African Christians who preached apartheid from certain Biblical stories. They felt it right to believe themselves as God’s people chosen to capture the new African Promised Land. This gave them cause to subjugate the Africans, just as the Israelites had subjugated the Canaanites at God’s command. To guard against such sinful misuse one has to be alert to the context – both the biblical context and our own cultural context. This is because what may have been God’s Word to his people in a different cultural context may be totally misunderstood and applied by us in another cultural context.

Of course, there will always be some subjectivity in Scripture reading. This is because we can never know 100% about the original context. However, I try to read with one principle in mind – Jesus came to set us free (John 8:32). Therefore one way is to question how the text is to be applied. Is my interpretation/application setting people free from their burdens (Luke 4:18)? Or am I further burdening or, even worse, oppressing them? (Matt 23)

May God’s wisdom guide us in all that we do!

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