MISREADING SCRIPTURE WITH WESTERN EYES: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
MISREADING SCRIPTURE WITH WESTERN EYES: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. By E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 240 pages.
The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes undertook a daunting task. Their goal was to enlighten the reader to the reality of confirmation bias when interpreting Scripture. They also gave advice for Westerners to be more self-aware. To accomplish this goal, they pepper their book with personal stories and examples of alternative biblical interpretations. These interpretations they considered more informed because Western mores and sensibilities had been removed. To be honest, I found the latter far more interesting than the former. Despite whether the reader agrees with every interpretation they proposed or not, they offered up enough evidence for their assertions that they achieved their goal. That is, mindful reader will begin to question some of their own interpretations and search them out for unnecessary Western influence.
A perfect example of this comes immediately in the introduction. It begins with a story from one of the authors about visiting the Laodicea, the city of one of the seven churches addressed in Revelation. The text in question is, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). Is this a passage about passionate spirituality? Is Jesus saying here that he wants people to be “hot” and zealous for him, but if not he would rather someone be at least “cold” and lost than lukewarm and wishy-washy? Like the author, that’s pretty much what I heard growing up. As if somehow Jesus would still condemn you for your unbelief, but he would at least appreciate your confidence. The author explains that when he was visiting Laodicea, he learned that there were two nearby cities that had something Laodicea did not: springs of water. On one side, there was Hierapolis with bubbling hot springs and on the other, Colossae which was home to a cold, freshwater spring. Each—hot and cold—were beneficial, but when they were brought into Laodicea by aqueducts they became lukewarm and lost the properties that had made them so special. The author proposed a better interpretation: Jesus doesn’t want his followers to have unremarkable discipleships. Whether this is the “correct” interpretation or not, the author has made a valuable point. We must be careful not to determine the meanings of Scriptural teaching as if the original authors and readers lived with a Western worldview.
These authors organized their argument in the image of an iceberg. They addressed first issues that are above the surface such as mores, race, and language. Then in the second part they discussed deeper issues such as individualism, honor and shame and time. Finally, they tackled relationships, virtue and vice, and self-centeredness. In each chapter, they detail the differences between the Western understanding of these concepts and the understanding likely held by the Bible’s original audience. The concluding chapter provided a summary of their advice for Westerners looking to read the Scriptures with better understanding.
The best parts of this book unpack for the reader the concept of those things that “go without saying.” In the same way that in every culture there are certain presuppositions that do not need to be said to be understood, the Bible speaks of people and places that have nuances understood best by those who lived during that time. The authors posed and offered up answers for a variety of questions. Westerners assume that marriage is the preferable state, but does Paul? Do we ignore the value Paul places on singleness because of this assumption? When Paul teaches women to be modest, is it sexual modesty, as Westerners assume, or could it also be economic modesty? Do we fully understand the racial and ethnic undercurrents in the Scriptures? Are we reading the words of Scripture according to their context both grammatically and historically? Are we too individualistic in our thinking to appreciate the communal culture of the Bible?
The book is an easy read and beneficial for layperson or pastor. The Lutheran pastor who is already well trained in the Historical-Grammatical approach to Scripture will unlikely experience any epiphanies about the baggage readers bring to the Bible. However, the dozen or so Scriptural examples are enough to keep the book interesting and worthwhile.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t considered how much their own culture and upbringing influences the way they read the Bible.
Rev. Dr. Phil Booe, Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church and Early Childhood Center in Hebron, Connecticut.