One of the many particularities of the Modern world is the concept of “compartmentalization.” While many Christians attempt to address compartmentalization on an individual level the concept is still ingrained in the societal identity of the West on a macro scale. What is compartmentalization? It is the attempt to draw clean lines between different areas of life. It is much easier to recognize on an individual level so let’s start there.
For an individual, compartmentalization is a type of “code switching” in different areas of their life. A man might be one type of person with his family and another type of person at work. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it certainly can be depending on certain variants. Problems begin to arise when a person begins to believe that these different areas in their life do not truly relate to one another and therefore believes that his actions at work do not affect his life at home. I bring up this point a lot here but it’s worth re-emphasizing, everything’s connected!
To zoom out from the individual and look at the modern world we can see that the concept of compartmentalization is actually a type of basic-ideal. However, on this macro-scale it is not quite so easy to discern as it is on the individual level. On the societal-level compartmentalization hides in phrases like “the separation of church and state” and “Religion doesn’t belong in politics.”
Whether we know it or not, these sorts of ideas are very recent constructs in the history of the world. In fact, the ancient world saw no such compartmentalization take place. Rather, those living thousands of years ago saw threads of “different” areas in their lives weaving through each other to create a unified whole. N.T. Wright captures this reality nicely in his book The New Testament and the People of God:
Religion, culture and politics were not sharply divided in the ancient world…Ancient society was not compartmentalized after the manor of Modern society, nor half so private an affair. What one did in any sphere of life was both observed and, in principle, integrated with other aspects. (pg. 156)
Long before the Enlightenment came along and separated the world into neat and tidy boxes it was assumed that one’s religious, cultural and political views were not only informing one another but, in fact, one integrated whole. This is one of the reasons that we have such a difficult time reading the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, in our day. We approach the Bible almost solely from the “compartment” of religion and/or personal devotion. And, because we’ve compartmentalized the Bible into a certain area of our Modern life, we do don’t know how understand it’s ancient integration of all of life. We like to pretend that Jesus was some sort of spiritual guru who cared not for the cultural or political aspects of his day. But the reality was quite different. Everything Jesus said, even the things we deem to be merely devotion, was overlaid with intense cultural and political integration. This is why the religious, cultural and political leaders of His day were so threatened.
In reading the Bible we must attempt to step outside of our comfortable boxes of compartmentalization and into a world where there was no “separation of church and state.”
Food for thought.