Being Culturally and Biblically Literate


A guest post by NES alumna, Marlena Graves

Over and over while at Northeastern Seminary I asked God, “What do you want me to do with this treasure trove of life-giving information?” In essence the question was, “How can I live and hand down the great tradition I’ve received?” Little did I know that two years after graduation I’d be writing for Christianity Today while living as a resident director on a Christian college campus with my family—embodying what I learned.

At NES, we were immersed in Scripture while learning church history and practical/pastoral theology. Added to the mix were biblical languages, philosophy, and the nuts and bolts of the best practices in the art of pastoring and pastoral care. We learned while reading primary resources, through our internships, and in the classroom—all while being spiritually formed.

In our spiritual formation groups, we shared our lives including our personal/church triumphs and struggles while trying to figure out just exactly how to individually and communally apply what we learned. Through it all, I saw how God moved within different cultural contexts during each historical time period (including our own by listening to my classmates’ stories). The Christians leaders that I learned about were culturally engaged and culturally literate—even if they were obscure. Although imperfect like all of us, they brought and incarnated the word of God for their time. 

What is cultural literacy? Janice Campbell offers this definition: “To be culturally literate is to understand the history and concepts that underlie a culture, and to be able to converse fluently in the allusions and informal content of that culture.” NES taught me biblical and cultural literacy. They educated me well in the history and teaching of Christianity since its inception—since Jesus was born.  And so NES taught me how to bring and incarnate the word of God for our time. Now, whether I am writing an article about racial diversity, school shootings, marital relationships, male/female roles in the church, or writing a sermon, or on campus or at home or church, I bring to bear what I learned at NES.

If I am culturally and biblically literate and full of the Holy Spirit and staying right at Jesus’s heels like the faithful throughout time, then I will be able to apply God’s truth to my immediate and broader culture. Like those in Scripture and throughout church history, it is crucial that I understand the language and events of our culture and then be able to translate God’s life into it. Otherwise, I’ll be less effective and productive in my knowledge of God.


Marlena Graves

Marlena is a 2007 graduate of NES. She is a regular writer for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. Her work has appeared in various other venues, such as the Clergy Journal. Currently, she is working on two manuscripts she hopes will see the light of day. In addition, she regularly speaks to college students and congregations about spiritual formation. She is married to the love of her life, Shawn Graves, a philosophy professor. Together, they have a four-year-old gregarious and precocious daughter, Iliana. You can find Marlena’s personal blog at:

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