Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

This book grabbed my attention right away because it’s intended purpose—to reveal unconscious cultural bias to Western readers like me—felt offensive at first. The fact that I was raised in an individualistic, American culture was likely a chief contributor to my taking their premise as something like an insult initially. That said, in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, authors Richards and O’Brien do a great job of reassuring their readers that they are not asserting that any one culture is wrong or right. In fact, they state flat out that “there is no purely objective biblical interpretation” (p. 12). Thus, it makes sense that “in whatever place and whatever age people read the Bible, we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading” (p. 11). Once I oriented myself to that perspective, I found it a fascinating read. 

Throughout the book, the authors do a terrific job of providing examples from other cultures and from their personal experiences and applying them to Scripture. This helps drive home their larger point that one’s awareness of their own cultural biases and understanding of cultural differences in language, time, and social time, and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and deeper ways.

Introduction: Coming to Terms with Our Cultural Blinders

The authors state that the core conviction that drives this book is the idea that some of the cultural biases we Western readers bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience (as well as other readers in similar cultures) see quite naturally. They argue that becoming aware of our cultural assumptions and how they influence our reading of Scripture is an essential step toward a full and faithful reading of the Bible, and they did a solid job of arguing their case.

The introductory chapter included some compelling examples, including an experiment with the parable of the prodigal son. The authors had students in different cultures read the parable carefully and discovered that those from Western cultures completely missed the fact that the story starts out mentioning a famine. This led Richards and O’Brien (2012) to raise the question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook a famine, what else might we be missing? It’s a fair question, and they do an excellent job of exploring the answer. I appreciated their goal “to unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a cross-cultural experience and help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read” (p. 22). I was certainly unsettled at times.

The authors use the image of an iceberg as their primary metaphor, which is reflected in the names of the three parts of the book below.

Part One: Above the Surface

In this section, the authors discuss three cultural differences that appear above the surface and are easy to notice. The first is the social conventions, or mores, that dictate which behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate in a culture. Second is the idea of race and ethnicity. And third, they look at language, which they argue is perhaps the most obvious difference between cultures (p. 26).

In the chapter “Serving Two Masters,” the authors illustrate how the church and the world often hold contradictory mores. Richards and O’Brien (2012) argue that “what is ‘proper’ by our standards—even by our Christian standards—is as often projected onto the Bible as it is determined by it. This is because our cultural mores can lead us to emphasize certain passages of scripture and ignore others” (p. 33). The authors provide examples of this claim in the areas of alcohol, sex, money, and food. Their point is made powerfully when Richards mentions a deacon in the church he grew up in who was not allowed to smoke, but no one seemed to mind that he was a racist.

This leads the authors into the issue of race and ethnicity in the chapter “The Bible in Color.” Richards and O’Brien (2012) point out that race is largely an invention of the Enlightenment, adding, “We believe there is only one race, the human race, made in the image of God” (p. 54). Instead of race, they use the word ethnicity to describe the difference, taking an “equal but not the same” position. Richards and O’Brien point out that the world of the Bible is “ethnically diverse and richly textured by an assortment of cultures, languages, and customs” (p. 56). Their broader point is that in the same way our ignorance about ethnicities can lead to misunderstandings in our daily lives, it can also lead to a misunderstanding of the Bible. One topic they did not touch on, which I would have liked to have seen, is the fact that God imposed “racial barriers” on the Israelites, telling them they were not to intermarry with other ethnicities.

In chapter three, the authors point out that language is much more than words. “Behind the words that make up language is a complex system of values, assumptions and habits of mind that reveal themselves in the words we use and leave unsaid” (Richards & O’Brien, 2012, pp. 70-71). The authors provide excellent examples of language differences. For example, Greek has four words for love— agape, philia, eros, and storge—while English only has one. Also, several Eastern languages have no word for privacy. Their more substantial point is that language is both the most obvious and the most insidious cultural difference. “Serious misunderstanding can occur when we fail to recognize all that goes without being said about language and how we use it” (p. 88). Richards and O’Brien argue that, while there is no substitute for being familiar with the Bible’s original languages, that does not mean one cannot become sensitive to the difference language makes.

Part Two: Just Below the Surface

This section begins with a powerful example of culture impacting one’s understanding of Scripture. They provide a back-translation of Psalm 23, as understood by the Khmus tribe of Laos. The final line of the Psalm—“and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” —brings comfort to millions of Western Christians but is a terrifying thought to Khmus tribesmen. Why? Because it is an eternal reward presented in individualistic terms. “For Khmus people, and many others in the world, their first reaction to the idea of spending eternity in heaven is, ‘What? And leave my family?’” (Richards & O’Brien, 2012, p. 92). In this section of the book, the authors look at three aspects of our Western worldview that are “just below the surface;” less visible and more dangerous.

In chapter four, the authors look at how Western societies are, for the most part, individualistic; the supreme value is the sovereignty of the individual. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, the most important entity is the community; the family, clan, tribe, or country. Richards and O’Brien (2012) explain that it is challenging to present the values of a collectivist culture in a positive light to Western readers. For example, conformity is a virtue in collectivist cultures, but often a vice in the West. “Because individualism goes without being said in the West, we can often get the wrong idea of what an event described in the Bible might have looked like. This can lead to the more serious problem with misunderstanding what it meant” (p. 100). The authors point out that in collectivist societies, “conversion is not strictly an individual decision, so it is often not an individual experience” (p. 103). They then make a compelling point about the nature of family in Eastern cultures being broader than in Western cultures, and how that fact manifests in Scripture. This concept of family is ultimately tied to the concept of the Church, and the authors note, “if we are not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church is something like a health club” (p. 107). Indeed!

Chapter five, “Have You No Shame?” offers a fascinating look at honor/shame and right/wrong cultures. Richards and O’Brien (2012) note that “individualist cultures tend to also to be right/wrong (innocent/guilt) cultures, while collectivist cultures tend to be honor/shame cultures” (p. 113). Westerners typically believe they should be internally motivated to do the right thing. Thus, they tend toward guilt rather than shame because they assume the punishment for not doing the right thing will be internal as well. In a shame culture, however, it is not a guilty conscience that punishes the offender, but the community who shames them. The authors point out that the honor/shame aspect of cultures in the Bible becomes readily apparent once we know to look for it. They then provide a couple of examples from Scripture. They first look at the story of David and Bathsheba and show how the honor/shame aspect of David’s culture determined his conduct. Then they examine how the New Testament writers employed honor/shame cultural assumptions to induce Christians to do good works. They suggest that Western readers “sometimes see ‘sin’ where the narrator did not intend it – or worse, we don’t see ‘sin’ in when the narrator was waving it in front of our faces” (Richards & O’Brien, 2012, p. 131).

Chapter six tackles the aspect of time in different cultures. The authors point out the difference between chronos time (what we might call clock or calendar time), and kairos, which is the more qualitative aspect of time that often refers to when something special happened. Thus, the reader needs to become sensitive to how Scripture discusses time in a given context. For example, in Western culture, there is an assumption that sequence is fundamental to the meaning of a story or text. However, in the non-Western world, “stories often circulate around the event until it coalesces; therefore, orderliness (but not the chronological sequence) is important” (Richards & O’Brien, 2012, p. 147).

Part Three: Deep Below the Surface

In part three, the authors dive deep beneath the surface of cultural consciousness. The differences they discuss in this section are the least obvious to us and often the most consequential for our interpretation.

Chapter seven is about rules and relationships. Here Richards and O’Brien (2012) look at two ways the Western view of reality affects the way they misread the Bible: relationships as rules and rules excluding relationships. “Westerners misread the biblical text when we assume that the rules, which we can see, are the total extent of the relationship” (p. 161). For example, Westerners tend to view the relationship between a patron and a client as contractual, like a business deal, rather than as familial, which is how it is viewed in Eastern cultures. Instinctively prioritizing rules over relationships can lead us to misunderstand some of Paul’s actions and motives. For example, Paul’s rationale for having Timothy circumcised had to do with relationships, not rules. “In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100% of the time. The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken” (p. 166).

In chapter eight, the authors take a look at virtue and vice through a cultural lens. This is where things got a little uncomfortable for me. In the end, I appreciated the fact that they unsettled me as a Western reader. The more significant point of this chapter is that we are “profoundly influenced by our culture to recognize certain behaviors as virtues and other behaviors as vices” (Richards & O’Brien, 2012, p. 178). In other words, our culture shapes our understanding of vice and virtue at the unconscious level.

For example, the authors look to Paul’s lists of vices in the New Testament and point out that, in Paul’s day, it was customary to state virtues and vices in lists of five, and these lists were not intended to be exhaustive or exemplary. However, when interpreting these lists, Westerners tend to rank the items individually, emphasizing vices, and deemphasizing virtues. In Paul’s day, it was not enough to remove vices; one was also expected to acquire virtues. However, modern Westerners tend to constrain the Christian life to simply eschewing vices. The authors also argue that Westerner readers tend to supplement the biblical lists with virtues and vices from their own culture. The authors list five Western “virtues” they claim are either non-biblical or anti-biblical: self-sufficiency, fighting for freedom, peace the American way, leadership, and tolerance. In doing so, the reader is urged to start paying attention to their instinctive interpretations as they read biblical passages that have to do with vice or virtue.

In chapter 9, the authors lower the boom on the “me” generation in America, talking about the historical population of America by those attracted to the rugged frontier and solitary life. Richards and O’Brien (2012), note “While every generation likes to critique the previous one, it seems to us that Americans are becoming more self-centered” (p. 194.) They argue that many Americans have come to believe that the purpose of religious faith is to provide therapeutic benefits to its adherents. The authors argue that, “while the church has not created the American preoccupation with me, it has certainly reinforced it” (p. 196). They suggest that over time the question Westerners ask when reading the Bible has shifted from “What does this mean to us?” to “What does this mean to me?” The authors then point to Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28 where the Western instinct to interpret these verses individually leads to misunderstandings. Richards and O’Brien (2012) assert that the “cultural assumption about the supremacy of me is the one to which we Westerners are perhaps blindest” (p. 207).

Conclusion: Three Easy Steps for Removing Our Cultural Blinders?

The clever title for this final chapter pokes fun at our Western penchant for wanting to do the right steps in the right order in order to accomplish a task. Richards and O’Brien (2012) explain that “We are not trying to teach you a new methodology. We’re trying to help you become . . . the kind of reader who is increasingly aware of his or her cultural assumptions” (p. 212). Thus, rather than “three easy steps,” the authors offer some sound advice to the reader: be prepared to embrace complexity, beware of overcorrection, be teachable, allow yourself the space to make mistakes and learn from them, and commit to reading together in community. The book closes by acknowledging that everyone has cultural blinders and reminding the reader that “we study the Scriptures, to paraphrase Paul, so that the ‘word of Christ may dwell in you richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom’ (Col 3:11, 16)” (p. 217).

Summary

Richards and O’Brien do a great job of shifting the Western reader’s perspective and making them aware of the biases and assumptions under which they operate. More importantly, they explain how our biases and assumptions can impact our understanding of Scripture. The authors do an excellent job of illustrating that when while reading a book written by Eastern authors in an Eastern culture, understanding the Eastern mindset can unlock a much deeper understanding of Scripture. I appreciated how many Scriptural examples they provided as they laid out their case.

I have to admit having a visceral reaction at times when I felt the authors were bashing America. For example, Richards and O’Brien (2012) stated, “the individualistic and self-absorbed population of America developed by way of a self–selecting process” (p. 194). This was initially offensive to me, but after some reflection, I had to agree that in many ways. America is self-absorbed. (See: celebrity culture.) And in the final analysis, our primary allegiance certainly must be to God, not country. Where America and God conflict, we must, as Christians, always side with God.

There were also some theological conclusions drawn by the authors that gave me pause. For example, they rightly point out that Jeremiah 29:11 was written to Judeans facing exile, not Americans making career plans. But Richards and O’Brien (2012) conclude, “Western Christians, especially North American Christians, tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us—to each of us and all of us individually.” (p. 193). While I agree with their larger point that interpreting all Scripture as if we were the center of the universe is not wise, I did not feel they left enough latitude for passages that might rightly be interpreted as containing truths that are both specific to the original audience and have a universal application. I also took issue with their application of biblical principles to the actions of the state or government. For example, Richards and O’Brien (2012) suggested that “we in the United States resort to military force much too quickly, a long time before we meet Paul’s standard of ‘if it is possible, as far as it depends on you’” (p. 185).  However, Paul’s teaching about love in action in Romans 12 was clearly written to the church in Rome, not the Roman government.

Overall, though, I found this book thought-provoking and valuable. In fact, it is because the authors challenged my Western bias that I found Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes memorable and well worth the read.

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