Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

by | Jul 18, 2015 | Book | 0 comments

Have you ever read the Bible and wondered if you were missing something? Or do you ever think that maybe our interpretations and applications of Scripture in America are being influenced more by our own cultural values than by Scripture itself? Have you ever considered that you may be blinded by your Western values, and therefore missing key parts of certain Bible stories? Well, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien address some of these issues in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.

In this book Richards and O’Brien not only point out that we often read our own values into the pages of Scripture, they also give us examples of how we do that and provide some ways for us to begin to remove those cultural blinders. They point out in the Introduction that “the core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits that we readers from the West (the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see quite clearly” (15). They remind us of how easy it is to read ourselves and our values into Scripture and therefore miss the entire meaning of a passage.We often assume that we know the point of a story or verse in the Bible, but more often than not those interpretations are more influenced by our own values and cultural assumptions than the Bible itself. Richards and O’Brien see that this is an issue. So they attempt to help us see some of the different ways we read our culture into the text.

Throughout the book they provide several examples of passages and verses where we often miss important details because of our cultural blinders. They offer some new insight to these passages, which often comes from their own experience working in other countries. Richards specifically has had quite a bit of experience working in Indonesia, where he was exposed to new ways of looking at the Bible. He often uses this experience to help us understand what we might be missing in the West. While they provide many examples with Scripture they do point out in the Introduction that they are not necessarily trying to say one interpretation is better than the other or that one is right or wrong. They simply want to get those of us in the West to think more about how we may be misreading scripture, misreading the Bible.

Richards and O’Brien recognize that Scripture is a foreign land. They point out that the stories within the Bible were written during a specific time, for specific people, in a certain place. This means that Scripture was written in a different context than we are currently living in. That context had its own values and ways of doing things. They had a different worldview back then compared to what we have now. The authors define worldview as something that “includes cultural values and other things we assume are true” (12). They compare a worldview to an iceberg. There are a few values that we can see above the surface, things that are easy to detect. However, there are more values that tend to hide beneath the surface. We are not always aware that we hold these values and so we are not aware of how they are affecting us and how we read the Bible. One way that the authors describe this is by saying that “the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said” (12). These are things in a culture that most people assume and so they usually don’t talk about them. They are the things that everyone knows about. When we are reading the Bible it may seem like “a passage of Scripture appears to leave out a piece of the puzzle because something went without being said” (12). Because there is a piece missing we try to “fill in the gap with a piece from our own culture- usually a piece that goes without being said” (12). Misinterpretation happens in these moments when we try to fill in the gaps with our own pieces. Most of the time we are not really aware that we are doing it, which is why this book is so helpful.

Throughout the book Richards and O’Brien use the iceberg metaphor to create the structure of their book. The first three chapters discuss cultural values and pieces that are easy to see, things that are above the surface.misreading scripture with western eyes

The first of these chapters looks at differences in cultural mores. The authors define mores as “the social conventions that dictate which behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate” (26). Mores are things that we typically don’t question. They are values that we assume everyone understands and agrees with. Things like cussing and cheating are considered mores. The authors note that mores often change through time and across cultures. Something that is considered a more on the east coast of the United States may not be on the west coast. Likewise, one generation may see something as inappropriate while another may not. One example that is used is that of whether or not Christians should or should not drink alcohol. Many Christians in older generations would say that it is inappropriate to drink even a glass of wine with dinner. Younger generations of Christians, however, would argue that there is nothing wrong with drinking any amount of alcohol at all. Richards O’Brien point out that Christians are often “squeezed between conflicting mores” (32). There are certain things that are considered mores in the Christian community. Unfortunately, those mores tend to be overruled by our Western, American mores. In fact our Western mores often clash so much with our Christian mores that we “are tempted to believe that our mores originate from the Bible. We believe it is inappropriate or appropriate to drink alcohol, for example by our standards- even by our Christian standards- is as often projected on to the Bible as it is determined by it” (33). Simply put, the values we have in our culture typically “lead us to emphasize certain passages of Scripture and ignore others” (33). These mores and values often lead us to misinterpret the Bible. We may miss something in a passage that other Eastern cultures would have picked up on right away. One example the authors use is that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We see the sin of the Sodomites as, well, sodomy. However, to many Christians in eastern cultures the main sin was inhospitality. The authors point out that in Indonesia they often point to Ezekiel 16:49 to support this interpretation. Within the rest of the chapter issues of interpretation surrounding sex, money, and food are discussed.

Chapter 2 focuses on race and ethnicity in the Bible. What goes without being said about race in the West is that “white Westerners feel that the worst thing they could be called is a racist” (54). We believe that making distinctions between races and ethnicities means that we are saying that one race is better than another. “Because we’re hesitant to make value distinctions- and rightfully so- we’re often slow to make any distinctions at all” (55). We believe that differences between ethnicities are not that important and try to avoid acknowledging differences as much as possible. We also assume that other cultures feel the same way. However, the authors suggest that “to understand a culture, you must be aware of ethnicity and especially the prejudices that may exist within a particular culture” (55). This is true when we are reading the Bible. We can’t just assume that everyone in biblical times thought the same way we do about race and ethnicity. When we do, we may end up misreading the Bible. One interesting example used in this chapter is from Numbers 12 where Aaron and Miriam bring up the issue with the wife of Moses. They point out that she is a Cushite. Most Americans fail to notice the issue in this story. The passage clearly states that a huge problem for Aaron and Miriam is that Moses’ wife is a Cushite. What went without being said in this passage is where Cush is located, the southern Nile River valley. The authors point out that this means that they were “darker skinned Africans” (60). Because of our history with slavery we think that Aaron and Miriam think that the Cushites are inferior to them. However, we are reminded that the Hebrews were actually seen as the slave race. From this information, the authors suggest that “it is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself” (61).

Chapter 3 focuses on the difference between languages. The Bible was not written in English. As it is translated to English a lot of the things that go without being said, idioms, and slang are usually lost. We often do not have words or phrases in English that match up with a concept in the original language. When these gaps come up we often try to substitute our own idioms and slang. This is not always a bad thing but it does often have a huge effect on how we interpret many passages. Many interpretation errors are linked to misunderstanding words and language in the Bible.

The second part of the book takes a look at some of the things that are just below the surface. These are things that we may not be aware of right away. These often include some pretty big differences in how we see the world compared to how Eastern cultures see the world. They include issues such as individualism/collectivism,   honor/shame vs. innocence/guilt, and how we view time. The authors point out that our individualistic mindset often causes us to miss certain things in Scripture. Back during biblical times, people had a more collectivist mindset. When they made a decision they often considered how it would effect a whole group of people. They often would not make a decision unless the whole family agreed. This is why in the New Testament when one person was converted to Christianity, so was their whole family. One of the biggest ways we see this difference affect us is in how we view church. We have come to a point in the West where we tend to see church as something for me. “We’re members because we believe in the mission statement and want to be part of the action” (107). I expect the church I attend to meet my needs. Once it stops doing that I find somewhere else that does. But, as the authors say very bluntly, “This is not biblical Christianity. Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become- permanently and spiritually- a part of the church” (107). Over and over in the New Testament Paul speaks about the importance of the whole Christian community, but because of our individual mindset we tend to miss that.

This individualism also has an effect on the difference between innocence/guilt vs. honor/shame when it comes to how God deals with sin. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the book, in my opinion. In the West we focus on whether something is right or wrong. We focus in on ourselves and so we are more aware of and operate through a system of inner guilt about our sins. However, because of the more collectivist attitude, the biblical culture (as well as most modern Eastern cultures) operated more through honor and shame. The concepts of honor and shame are ones we often have a hard time understanding in the West. In honor and shame cultures there is usually very little inner motivation to avoid a sin. The concern is more on how the rest of the community will see them. They are concerned with what the rest of the community thinks and they understand that many times their actions will have some effect on the rest of the church, family, or village. The authors point out that “ancients avoided doing evil not primarily because they were concerned about right or wrong, but because others were watching” (114). They provide some interesting examples from the Bible to demonstrate where we may be missing this.

This individualism often makes us see ourselves as the center of God’s plan and the center of Scripture. I tend to assume that the Bible is all about me. Richards and O’Brien point out that this focus on me often “leads us to confuse application with meaning” (198). During Bible study times a phrase that is often said is “This is what this passage means to me.” The authors point out that this phrase is inaccurate. Scripture “means what it means” (198). Instead we should be thinking: “this is how this passage applies to me.” The Bible can apply to us in our own context but we have to be careful that we don’t mix that up with meaning. When we do this “we can ignore the actual meaning of the text altogether” (199). Several examples of places in Scripture that we tend to do this are cited, including Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8, and Matthew 24. With each of these Richards and O’Brien explain where we mistake meaning for application and offer a different way at looking at each of these passages.

Part three dives deeper below the surface. In these last three chapters Richards and O’Brien take a look at the cultural values that we are not aware of. These are values that are so fundamental to our society that we typically forget that they are there. These values are typically the most dangerous when we are interpreting and applying Scripture. They range from how we view rules and relationships, how we identify virtues and vices, and what we see as the center of God’s will.

In the West we want all rules to be black and white. Rules should apply to everyone all the time. Otherwise it’s not fair. We struggle when there are exceptions to rules. “The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions” (166). However, the ancient world did not function this way. “Rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time” (166). One example of this is how there seems to be some disconnect in Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says that women must keep silent when there are places where women clearly teach and have leadership positions in the church. We are confused about this. We may say, “But I thought women were supposed to be quiet.” The authors suggest that Paul might respond by saying, “Yes. And most of them do” (170). This is an uncomfortable way for Westerners to think. We want black and white where there is color.

Each chapter in this book is extremely well written. Besides being simple and easy to read, this book is very practical and helpful for the church. The authors communicate their points very clearly and offer plenty of examples to support these points. Each chapter has a clear focus and direction and each flows nicely onto the next. One thing that is very helpful about this book is that at the end of each chapter the authors provide several questions to help the reader think through what was discussed. Each example from Scripture is used well and shows careful consideration on the part of the authors. This book ultimately challenges Christians in America to take a step back and think about how we read the Bible. As someone who has a passion for teaching this exact thing to people outside of the academic world I think that this book is very exciting. The whole idea of reading our culture into the text of Scripture is something that is talked about quite a bit in academic circles. However, it is very rarely addressed in the rest of the church. Through this book, Richards and O’Brien have brought this conversation to the rest of the church, in way that helps people become more aware of how they are reading, or misreading, Scripture.

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