Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL November 4, 2012
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Richards is dean and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and O’Brien is a part-time instructor of religion at College of DuPage and editor-at-large for Leadership journal. O’Brien was a student of Richards. Foundational is their conviction that “all Bible reading is necessarily contextual. There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. This is not postmodern relativism. We believe truth is truth. But there’s no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts” (p. 12). “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 naturally” (p. 15). They identify nine differences between Western and non-Western cultures in order to meet the primary goal of the book, “to help us learn to read ourselves. . . . Before we can be confident we are reading the Bible accurately, we need to understand what assumptions and values we project onto the Bible: those things that go without being said and that make us assume that some interpretations are self-evident and others are impossible” (p. 16).

Each chapter addresses an issue; social mores, race and ethnicity, theories of language, individualism and collectivism, honor and shame, theories of time, human relationships, virtue and vice, and finding God’s will. Illustrations from Scripture, ministry experiences in the Western world, and Richards’s life in Indonesia help the reader see the practical implications of the themes in the book. Each chapter concludes with several “questions to ponder.”

A final chapter provides a negative answer to the question, “Three Easy Steps for Removing Our Cultural Blinders?” Instead of “three easy steps,” they provide some excellent advice: Biblical interpretation is complex and requires hard work. Avoid overcorrection and overgeneralization. Remain teachable; hold assumptions loosely. Do not fear being wrong; “Fear only failing to learn from your mistakes” (p. 216). Then the book concludes with this admonition: “If we want to know when we’re reading ourselves into the Bible, rather than allowing the Bible to speak in its own terms, we need to commit ourselves to reading together. The worldwide church needs to learn to study Scripture together as a global community. Paying attention to our brothers and sisters abroad can open the echo chamber and allow new voices in. . . . May we seek to read Scripture with ‘persons from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9)” (pp. 216–17). In short, if the goal of “the study of Scriptures, to paraphrase Paul, [is] so that the ‘word of Christ may dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom’ (Col 3:11,16),” that cannot happen, given a solitary Bible reader (p. 217). In short, one cannot “admonish one another” alone.

This is an outstanding treatment of a complex and important topic. Humans are cultural beings, deeply immersed in the world in which they live. It could hardly be otherwise. One of the consequences of cultural immersion is that understanding the impact of environment and culture on the readers of Scripture does not come easily. One can easily forget that the biblical texts were not written directly to this culture, but were written to other people in other cultures. Yet since the Bible is the Word of God and it is true and inerrant, it needs to be read and applied in every culture. This book is an aid to those who want to learn to do that well.

No reader will agree with everything in the book. Every reader will disagree with the authors’ use of some illustrative texts and the implications they draw. But every reader will learn something from this book that will make him or her a better Bible reader. This would make a good textbook for courses in hermeneutics or biblical interpretation, cultural studies, prolegomena, or theological method, as well as small-group studies in a local church. The book is written at a level that educated laypeople as well as pastors, teachers, and scholars will find helpful.

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2013 vol. 170 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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