E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien’s Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

19094149Written in 2012, Richards’ and O’Brien’s [R&O hereafter] Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is a bit of a mixed bag though, overall, I found it very thought-provoking and helpful. Let me say at the outset that Brandon is a personal friend and I have the utmost respect for him, for his mind, for his ministry, and for his scholarship. He’s a lot smarter dude than I’ll ever be, that’s for sure! I was honored to interview him recently for an episode of “Quarantine Theology: Conversations with Theologians, Historians, and Old and New Testament Scholars,” and I have reviewed other of his books here and here.

To be sure, the good of this volume certainly outweighs the perplexing. R&O are concerned that Western readers of scripture understand just how much our assumptions, our biases, our preunderstandings, our philosophical outlook, and our presuppositions shape how we read scripture. Simply put, we often misread scripture with Western eyes and essentially impose upon the text concepts and ideas that would have been foreign to the original authors and hearers. “We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience” (p. 11).

That is true. (In saying this, by the way, O’Brien articulates an idea that he will return to again in Not From Around Here, linked above.) One of the operational premises of the book can be found in this statement on page 12:

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.

R&O’s assurance that this “is not postmodern relativism” is important, for there are more than enough examples of hermeneutical approaches that are so suspicious as to become functionally nihilistic. This is not what R&O are up to and any fair reading of their work will show this to be the case. No, R&O believe there is such a thing as meaning and they believe that the meaning or meanings of scripture can be ascertained. They are simply arguing in this book that the idea that we in the West read scripture from some utopian and pristine epistemological vantage point of unveiled and pure vision is a delusion. Put another way, we might say that one of the reasons why we see now “through a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) is that the glass is smudged over with our own Western cultural baggage. To take that metaphor to the next step, R&O are asking that at least that aspect of the dimmed glass be acknowledged and that the process of addressing this be undertaken.

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)

And what, we might ask, is the big deal? So what if our cultural assumptions cause us to miss a nuance here or there. No, R&O argue, the issue is much bigger than that. First, it’s not just subtle nuances at stake. Sometimes it is the fundamental meaning of certain passages that is at stake. What is more:

If our cultural blind spots keep us from reading the Bible correctly, then they can also keep us from applying the Bible correctly. (p. 17)

Yes. That would certainly seem to be a very real possibility. The reality is that much is at stake in getting this right.

The book is R&O’s effort to prove their thesis by giving practical examples of ways in which our Western eyes cause us to misread scripture. On the whole, they do this admirably. Their “core conviction” is correct and the book is a success in that they do indeed show it to be so. They demonstrate, for instance, how Western assumptions about time fail to appreciate the kairos/chronos distinction the biblical writers knew and utilized. They demonstrate how Western emphases on certain sins (i.e., sexual sins) cause us to miss actions and attitudes that ancient people would have seen as equally if not more sinful (i.e., economic sins, greed, etc.)

In other words, one of the ways Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible is by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty. (p. 43)

They demonstrate how we miss certain realities that would have been and still are abundantly clear to people whose lives more closely reflect the lives of ancient people in an agrarian society (i.e., the famine in the story of the Prodigal  Son—a very interesting section of this book, I must say!). They demonstrate how Western virtues like punctuality, savings, and efficiency are in many ways just that—Western—and that our emphasizing of these can cause us to miss alternative ways of thinking that are often extolled in the pages of scripture.

Those are just some examples of the ground that R&O cover, and they cover a lot of ground! There are some fascinating insights in this book that correct misunderstandings I have both had and preached! For instance:

So what was it about the Cushites that went without being said in the ancient Near East? The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers. It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. That makes sense of the tone of the passage. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they whined. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2). In other words: Moses is not the only prophet here. Who does he think he is? (p. 61)

Well. I did NOT know that. I have projected my own understanding on this passage for years and have argued that Miriam’s and Aaron’s great problem with Moses’ wife was her skin color. Apparently that is not so. Here’s another fascinating insight:

Paul struggles for a Greek word to describe the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. He describes it as a “love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness-gentleness-self-control kind of fruit” (Gal 5:22). Paul is not giving us a list of various fruits, from which we may pick a few. Rather, he gives us a list of words that circle around the one character of a Spirit-filled life he is trying to describe. (pp. 74-75)

Well! That right there will ruin a nine-part sermon series, won’t it? I also really appreciated the section on how the Western emphasis on privacy causes a real disconnect between us and much of the world even today! Richards’ examples in this regard were very interesting, especially the story of the two Indonesian men who both owned a great deal of property but who built their houses right beside each other on the property line so that they would not be lonely (p. 77). One more example. I thought the section on collectivist cultures, then and now, was very helpful and I think it will help me better grasp some of the collectivist and “household” portions of scripture.

Duane Elmer, a professor of missions and intercultural studies, explains in his book Cross-Cultural Connections that when he shared Christ with Asian adults, he “was constantly told that they could not make a decision to follow Christ without asking a parent, uncle, aunt or all three.” At first he thought this was an evasive maneuver, a ruse to avoid making the hard decision of faith. Over time he realized that this is simply how collectivist cultures work. People “do not make major decisions without talking it over with the proper authority figures in their extended family.” This is hard for us Westerners to understand. We believe they are simply doing what the authority figure(s) said and not making the decision for themselves. This is not necessarily so. My (Randy’s) Asian friend speaks of his conversion this way: “My father is wiser than I am. If he says Jesus is better, then I know Jesus is better.” My friend has a faith as strong and rooted as mine. His certitude about Jesus came a different way than mine, but it is as firm. When the wise matriarch Lydia decided Paul’s god was best, her household was convinced as well (Acts 16:14-15). (pp. 104-105)

So, yeah, this is great stuff. This is needed stuff. I marked up a lot of this book to file, remember, and recall. Yet I have at some questions as well. I want to be clear that some of my concern in a few areas is not because I necessarily know the answers to my questions but rather that some of my questions were recurring. Some of my concerns are not even really concerns. They are more like agitations.

For instance, there were too many stories about Indonesia. Mind you, I highlighted probably 75% of these stories because they were fascinating and because Richards’ time and experiences in Indonesia were indeed helpful for advancing the idea that there are a number of significant differences in the ways that people elsewhere in the world think. And, yes, it would seem to me that the people of Indonesia with and among whom Richards lived and worked for I gather a significant time almost certainly inhabit a thought world more akin to that of, say, a first century person than a modern American does. So I get the strategy. However, there were so many Indonesia stories that through the last quarter of the book I began to feel that Richards was resting a bit easily on what appeared to me to be a possible assumption that Indonesian culture and, again, first century culture were directly analogous. I hasten to say that I have no doubt whatsoever that Richards would quickly say that this is not the case and that it is more the case that those two cultures overlap more than do our own,  but I am talking about the impression that the weight of so many illustrations had on me. And, finally, I am a bit irritable by nature, so, I do admit, I started to see so many Indonesia stories as almost a bit of a literary tick. But I do know that’s unfair of me…

Every now and then I found some of the points in the book a bit forced as well. Take, for instance, R&O’s argument that people in honor/shame cultures are responding in some ways more to public shaming than to a Westernized concept of the internal conscience. They argue that this was the case with David in their interesting and, at point, curious retelling of the David and Bathsheba story.

If we assume David thought like a Westerner with an introspective conscience, we’re likely to miss the point altogether. (p. 127)

I have no doubt this is true to an extent (i.e., that Western readers miss the honor/shame dynamics and the ways that God utilized them) and I found this section helpful. I just wonder if it was perhaps a bit overplayed or maybe made a bit too neat and tidy?  For instance, I found it interesting that R&O, in their lengthy consideration of David and Bathsheba and in light of the point they were advancing, never mention Psalm 32, a text that, at least on the surface, might seem to evidence something like an internalized conscience after all:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Yes, I am aware that we are not completely sure of either the Davidic authorship of Psalm 32 or of this psalm’s connection to David and Bathsheba (though many argue that it is). Neither point is necessary to see Psalm 32 as a possible nuance to R&O’s unpacking of conscience/shame-and-honor. Also, I am fully aware that R&O are not arguing that ancient people did not have consciences, and I likewise have no doubt that they would have very good responses as to what Psalm 32 is and is not saying. Even so, the point of shame/honor as the driving force in matters of conviction and behavior was stressed enough that texts like this likely came to the mind of at least some of their readers as it did to mine. I would have liked to see some interaction with it.

Perhaps my biggest concern with the book was the section on “rules” vs. “relationships.” To summarize, R&O are arguing that Western people tend to like laws and lists that they deem inviolable and they apply mechanistically to all people and before which no exceptions are allowed. Many non-Western people, however, are not so rigid, prioritizing relationships instead and having a more fluid approach to rules and laws. A few quotes to demonstrate:

In the West, rules must apply to everyone, and they must apply all the time. In the ancient world, rules did not seem to require such universal compliance. (p. 168)

To the non-Western mind, it seems, a law is more a guideline. (p. 170)

Our tendency to emphasize rules over relationship and correctness over community means that we are often willing to sacrifice relationships on the altar of rules. (p. 173)

We are called to “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Even after two thousand years, we are still uncomfortable with Paul’s law-free gospel. (p. 173)

We Westerners should also likely consider being less rigid about the rules we read in Scripture. (p. 174)

Richards concludes this chapter like this:

I (Randy) remind my students that one of the perks of being sovereign is that you get to do what you want. In fact, it often seems as if God is sovereign over everything except his rules. Like the Medes and the Persians, we seem to insist upon God being bound to his own rules. In Indonesia, I learned that one of the major responsibilities of the person “in charge” of an office is to determine when to make exceptions. Rules apply except when the one in charge says otherwise. Westerners might consider this arbitrary; many non-Western Christians consider this grace. Fees apply to everybody, unless the manager thinks someone really can’t afford it. Then he makes an exception. (p. 174)

Now, R&O clearly are not antinomians and they clearly are not trying to smuggle some sort of moral license into the faith. That would be an utterly uncharitable reading. And, they are no-doubt correct: the Western minds probably does think more in terms of stark categories of compliance or disobedience, at least theoretically (in practice we love exceptions so far as we are the ones being excepted). And, yes, who can deny that rigidity can lead us into petty legalisms and the like?

But here is my problem: the issues at stake in chapter seven are simply too big and too complex for a chapter! This issue is a book in and of itself. A single chapter simply cannot handle the number of questions that I and I have no doubt others have when reading this chapter. I tended to read this chapter from the vantage point of possibly giving this book to members of our church to read in a discipleship training course. I think I can say with some degree of accuracy that this chapter presented as it was presented would most likely cause genuine confusion because of what it does not answer to a sufficient degree: What are these exceptions? Who determines them? How does this explain this or that passage of scripture (there are many that might prove challenging to the central thrust of this chapter)? Does this open the door to me personally being able to claim exception status? What do I do with my friend who appears to be taking a walk on a ruinous path who claims that he is an exception and that my lovingly confronting him is simply the imposition of a Western-law-approach over his more organic and therefore biblically faithful relational approach?

It is not that R&O do not communicate anything concerning these issues. They do. They speak, for instance, of the way that the Ten Commandments are framed as opposed to other rules and laws and that some laws are indeed inviolable at all times for all people. But I am talking about what I perceive the overall impression of this chapter to likely be for many modern Evangelical readers.

All of that being said, if the purpose of a good book is to raise questions and spur further thought, this book is a success. It does indeed do that (even though, on the point raised above, I think some questions need a bit more answering from the authors themselves). I believe the central premise of the book was confirmed. I also believe the goal of the authors was met. You will walk away convinced that we must interpret ourselves if we are to interpret the text of scripture well. You will see very real examples of ways in which our assumptions and biases have indeed caused us to misread scripture at points with Western eyes. You will be led to consider what you bring to the text. And, if you read this book carefully, you will be a better reader and interpreter of scripture.

A mixed bag? I think so a little bit. But a helpful and convicting one nonetheless.

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