"Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes" | Randy Richards [Book Review]
My second semester of college, I took one of those classes where the professor takes everything you thought you knew, pulls the rug out from underneath it and leaves you scrambling for equilibrium. The class was Introduction to Missions, and the professor was Dr. Randy Richards. I loved the Bible and had read it cover-to-cover over a dozen times by that point. I knew the Bible.
Or I thought I did.
That one professor (and the Bible Interpretation class I was also taking that semester) caused me to ditch my Chemistry major for Christian Studies. Rather than focusing on mission methodologies (which we could opt to become educated in later on), he focused on introducing us to our own worldview, the things that go unsaid that we assume about the world, and how that impacts our interactions with people different from us.
I was floored to discover that the rest of the world doesn’t share my basic worldview, that the concept of time is not something limited and to be hoarded or managed or carefully watched in other cultures. How individualistic we are, and why arranged marriage makes sense and is cherished in collectivist cultures. He also introduced us to the Myers-Briggs personality profile, which has helped me tremendously in understanding why on earth everyone isn’t like me (an ISTJ). I can now even be grateful that everyone isn’t like me, even if it means they are flighty or inefficient.
Richards combined a fascinating mixture of his own experience as a missionary in remote Indonesia, anthropology, and his expertise as a biblical scholar (his PhD is in Paul) into one unique class that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind in eight years. In fact, I’ve spent the last eight years reading tons of books on anthropology, hermeneutics (Bible interpretation), various cultures and their worldviews, and Bible translation because of this class.
And now, much of what rocked my world in that class is available to all of us in a very important book: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (co-authored with Brandon O’Brien, published by InterVarsity Press).
If I could give a copy of this book to all of you, I would. You guys know I’m a reader. If I could only recommend one book to you to read this entire year, it would be this one. Allow me to convince you?
What's the Point of Misreading Scripture?
The premise of the book is that when we read Scripture, it is a cross-cultural experience every time. The authors and the listeners are not Western, white, individualistic, rule-oriented Americans. So we need to be aware of the differences that span this gulf between us to avoid misreading Scripture.
The book is divided into three main sections: "Above the Surface,” “Just Below the Surface,” and “Deep Below the Surface.” The first section describes the differences that are the easiest for us to digest and the easiest for us to correct our lenses when we read Scripture, and the last section is perhaps the hardest to swallow because the values it challenges are embedded deeply into us.
In each section, the authors introduce one of our assumptions about reality, explore its history and evolution in Western society, and explain the problems it causes us when we try to read the Bible.
For instance, our individualism causes us to only see salvation and sanctification as individual events: that I decide to follow Jesus apart from anyone else, that my personal spiritual growth and obedience are key, and that every promise in the Bible is, in some way, for me. The problem is that the Bible was written in a collectivist society by collectivist people. So many conversions in the Bible are communal: an entire family follows Jesus because the elder of the family makes that decision and is considered wisest. Some promises are made to the entire community of God, but not to each individual within that community.
Graduates across the U.S. will claim Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper and not to harm you”) as God’s hand on their career decisions and life plans. But the context indicates that this is a promise to the people of Israel (plural “you”) as they go into exile. Does God keep His promise? Yes ... but not for 70 years. Two generations of Israelites are killed, enslaved, or otherwise do not see the promise fulfilled, but Israel did. This promise is not intended for each of us – it was meant for the entire people of Israel in that situation. And the authors point out a better interpretation: the Church is often described as exiles and aliens, facing persecution and opposition and suffering. But we look forward, as a group, to the Resurrection and the New Heaven and New Earth, the restoration of all things. Isn’t this better than God just micromanaging our career paths?
Another issue we are confronted with (and you may be itching with it after the last paragraph) is that Westerners want everything to conform to a rule, just as nature conforms to the laws of physics, and just as the rules we set for our children. We want them to apply to 100% of people, 100% of the time. A rule is a rule is a rule. Richards and O’Brien trace the evolution of this underlying value of ours, and they expose how it affects our Bible reading. We want everything to apply to us, all the time. But the biblical writers and audiences weren’t as concerned with rules as we are; instead, relationships were the basis of reality for life. This is why the Mosaic Covenant wasn’t over when Israel sinned and broke the Law, when the rule was broken. They did this millions of times before the Covenant was broken! Instead, the Covenant ended when the relationship was severed, and this took quite a long time.
This rules-versus-relationship difference also helps explain why Paul gives “rules” about female leadership, but then we find several examples of female leaders and apostles throughout the New Testament. Complementarians and Egalitarians are both coming from the wrong assumption: that a rule is a rule is a rule to Paul. There are clearly exceptions.
Another fascinating difference that can skew our Bible reading is that Westerners view things in a dualistic right/wrong motif, whereas the Bible is actually written from an honor/shame culture. The authors note that we Westerners assume David felt inner guilt after the Bathsheba incident, but God used Nathan to shame him to bring him to repentance. Paul often exhorted churches to holiness using shame, rather than appealing to an inner conscience. The Holy Spirit works both ways: by introspective guilt for us and by shame for them.
Some quick teasers if you’re still not convinced that you’ll want to read this book:
- When Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, it was probably packed because of Passover, not isolated as we often assume.
- When Scripture exhorts women to dress modestly, it may be actually talking in terms of economic modesty, rather than sexual modesty (though that’s highly important, too!).
- Joseph and Mary wouldn’t have been solitary travelers to Bethlehem as we always depict them in our plays and movies.
A Caution Against Misreading Scripture from our Cultural Assumptions
The book is not exhaustive, of course; it is only 217 pages. But, it certainly gets us thinking about the assumptions we make when we come to the Bible, and cautions us against misreading out of those assumptions. Richards and O’Brien bring us fascinating insights about treasured passages we think we have mastered and cause us to look more carefully and closely. I’m excited to read the Bible after having read this book to see old passages through more Eastern-sensitive eyes, and to begin the process of identifying the things that go unsaid in my own mind, and the things that likely went unsaid for the biblical authors.
This book is important for anyone who reads, studies, teaches, or loves the Bible. We are all misreading it in some way, and we can thank God for Richards’ and O’Brien’s contribution to the Body of Christ for helping us to understand the precious gift of Scripture a little more clearly.
Disclosure: I was not paid for this review, I was not provided with a free copy of the book, and the links provided are not affiliate links. In other words, I don’t benefit from this review in any way.