Have you ever wondered if you really understood the Bible for what it says rather than reading yourselves into the Bible? Or why Christians struggle to agree on theological topics such as infant baptism? Both (if not more) sides quote Bible verses to prove their position right, but in the end, neither argumentation feels satisfying. In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien explains culture may be the culprit.
We all know the Bible was written at a different time in different cultures and different languages. Some may say it is, therefore, not possible to understand what the authors truly meant. Indeed, how can we as Westerners (more or less) from the 21st century understand the perspective of middle Easterners from the first (and far before!) century? Some would simply tell us to read the Bible and see for ourselves! Fair enough. Scripture is understandable enough, especially due to modern translations, but language does not communicate all that is going on. There are always assumptions from the authors’ worldview that are not as obvious for all.
“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. […] All Bible reading is necessarily contextual” (p. 11-12)
Richards and O’Brien seek to raise awareness about the influence of the reader’s culture in interpreting Scripture. Richards abundantly uses his experience as a missionary in Indonesia (but not only) to illustrate their sayings. Some readers may view this as an issue since the Indonesian culture differs from the Biblical culture. It surely needs nuance, but their perspectives seem to be close enough to consider those examples worthy of our attention. In fact, the authors acknowledge the diversity of cultures within mainstreams and the danger of generalization, whether for Eastern or Western cultures: “To begin with, making generalized statements about Eastern and Western cultures is ill advised. Unfortunately, we must. […] Even so, we are limited by space and language. We like to say that generalizations are always wrong and usually helpful. We ask you for the benefit of the doubt.” (p. 19). With this warning said, they articulate the book around the imagery of an iceberg:
- Above the surface
- Just below the surface
- Deep below the surface
“Above the surface” refers to what is the most obvious such as mores (social conventions indicating what is acceptable or not), race and ethnicity, and language.
- Mores are “folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group” (p. 29). We like to think that our moral conventions find their roots in the Bible, but we may project our ideals on our interpretation of Scripture. The authors use the topics of sex, money, and food as illustrations and question if we got it right. For example, 1 Tim 2:9 commands women to be dressed modestly is assumed to be sexual modesty by our western standards, but the authors argues for economic modesty since the end of the verse refers to elaborate hairstyles or gold pearls… and not only for women, but also for men who are called not to be “lovers of money” (1 Tim 3:3). Could it be that we have failed to interpret economic indecency because wealth is viewed positively while historical puritanism has decreed sexual sins as the worst of all sins? Eastern societies may be more inclined to view wealth as to be shared among themselves, which makes wealth potentially indecent.
- Race and ethnicity play an important role in understanding Scripture. It is necessary to be aware of ethnical diversity and stereotypes in the Biblical world. Indeed, the white majority in America might be hesitant to make distinction between “races” and ethnicities (and for good reasons), but the trap is to become “colorblind” which is “the belief that ethnic differences don’t matter. […] But we suspect what is commonly meant is that everyone should be treated as if they were the same – and by same, what is frequently meant is majority culture” (p. 55). Being aware of racial and ethnical differences may not lead to us to view some groups positively (Ex: Paul uses an ethnic slur in Gal 3:1 “You foolish Galatians!”), but “our ignorance about the ethnic stereotypes in biblical times can cause us to miss undercurrents in the biblical text” (p. 59).
- The Bible was obviously written in different languages than English. Translations do not necessarily reflect the original meaning because “behind the words, now in a language we understand, remains that complex structure of cultural values, assumptions and habits of mind that does not translate easily, if at all” (p. 72). The authors especially demonstrate that if there is something we consider important, we will have a word for it. For example, makarios (Mat 5:9) is translated “blessed,” but its original meaning is “a feeling of contentment, when one knows one’s place in the world and is satisfied with that place. If your life has been fortunate, you should feel makarios” (p. 75). There are also cultural values behind sentence construction, genre, literary styles and figures. For example, English tends to be direct and explicit. It is a “subject-verb language” implying action contrary to other languages that do not require a subject. We also like propositional statements that are self-explanatory rather than stories or imagery that seem to leave ambiguity (ex: parables). Learning the original languages and reading many translations are probably the best options to avoid misinterpretation.
“Just below the surface” refers to universal values hidden from plain sight. We would not be aware of the differences unless we face them. The three differences the authors tackle are individualistic and collectivistic cultures, honor/shame and innocence/guilt systems, and perspectives on time.
- Western societies tend to be individualistic, where the right of the individual is of first importance. Each person is encouraged to stand out for his ideas and to live to fulfill his dreams. In Eastern societies, the community supersedes individuals. Conformity is a virtue. The harmony of the community is a more excellent value than personal happiness. Of course, there are different degrees of individualism and collectivism in each culture, but biblical cultures were more collectivistic than individualistic. So our interpretation and application of Scripture can be impacted. For example, the debate around infant baptism is often understood as a theological issue, whereas culture could be a key to greater understanding. Acts 10 & 16 tells entire households were baptized. Could it be that the conversion of the head of the house implied that the whole family followed whether they were truly regenerated or not?
- Honor and shame are a paradigm that sheds much light on Scripture as well. It is contrasted with the innocence/guilt system dominant in the West. In the honor and shame system, wrongdoing is not felt internally when violating standards, but when the community discovers it. For example, a man who steals a can of soda would not feel guilty because of “You shall not sin,” but he would feel ashamed when he is found guilty by society. Sin is therefore viewed from a relational rather than a judicial perspective. Though it can be the same act, one would see sin as shaming God by his behavior, and the other as violating God’s rules. This different perspective impacts the way Scripture is understood. The authors illustrate how it would change our interpretation of the story of King David and Bathsheba. The result is quite astonishing and different from what we usually hear from the pulpit.
- Perspective on time also influences our interpretation of Scripture. The New Testament uses two Greek terms referring to time: Kairos and Chronos, but the English translations do not necessarily accommodate the nuance. According to the authors, chronos matches our understanding of time that can be measured with units while Kairosrefers to the idea of timing: “the more qualitative aspect of time, when something special happened” (p. 142). A consequence is our desire as westerners to reorganize the Gospels in chronological order, possibly missing the sequence of the stories intended by each Gospel author.
Lastly, the authors deal with values “deep below the surface.” Those values “are so fundamental to human experience, we can’t imagine Christian rules or values changing across cultures. For example, you might find it easy to imagine a culture in which identity derives from the group and not the individual […]. But you may find it harder to believe that what constitutes vice and virtue can change from one place to another” (p. 155). In this last section, Richards and O’Brien explain the issues between rules and relationships, virtue and vice, and of our self-centeredness.
- Westerners tend to understand relationships in terms of rules. Laws define reality. For example, the law of gravity defines the behavior of an apple falling from a tree. So we like to create rules to clarify and to define relationships: we call someone a friend when he behaves in a certain way. If those rules are broken, then the relationship is broken. Our interpretation of Scripture tends to follow a pattern that expects rules to apply 100%. Consequently, we struggle to understand exceptions: why does Paul tell uncircumcised to stay that way (1 Cor 7:18) and then circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3)? Why is Israel not punished for failing to circumcise all males when they were wandering in the wilderness (Josh 5:5-7) while the commandment was given before (Ex 12:40-49)? What the authors argue for is that relationships in the Bible trump rules rather than the reverse, and it is a confusing statement to make. Indeed, does relationship trump theology?
“Paul in Acts 21 does not take the opportunity to correct James’s theology. Most of us would not have been able to let it slide. This may be an indication that Paul prioritizes healthy relationship over doctrinal precision (Rom 12:18). […] 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” (p. 173-174)
- Vices and virtues are often influenced by our culture, whether we like it or not. It implies that we may rank lists of virtues or vices in the Bible according to our “preferences.” We may be scandalized by pastors who commit adultery, but not so much about those who are “excessively prideful.” Cultures can also add unbiblical virtues such as self-sufficiency, tolerance, leadership, and fighting for freedom (for westerners). Those are not necessarily wrong, but the Bible does not justify them. Cultures can also leave biblical virtues out, such as sharing resources rather than saving in excess.
“Leadership is a Western virtue; submission is a biblical virtue” (p. 186)
- The last point the authors address is self-centeredness. They use this well-known verse “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope (Jer 29:11) to show how we understand it personally. Indeed, our sermons often lead to this question: “what does it mean to me?” What the authors try to do is not to tell us it is wrong to do so, but that it limits our understanding of Scripture and God’s will. We ought to understand what Scripture says within its original context, and see it from a collective perspective: “what does it mean to us?” When we only interpret Scripture from a self-centered point of view, we may think God’s promises have failed us as individuals when life situations do not go our way. However, if we view Scripture as God’s people, we may revise our first approach to see how God has not failed us as His people.
The book concludes without a method to avoid wrong interpretations… for good reasons:
I told [Phebe – a Syrian friend] we were struggling to make the book practical, to offer concrete suggestions for how our readers could apply the information in these chapters to their own study of Scripture.
‘That’s sort of a Western thing to want, isn’t it?’ she asked with a smile. ‘Three easy steps for identifying our cultural presuppositions!’
She’s right, of course. Westerners like systems, processes and checklists. It’s easy for us to believe that if we just work the right steps in the right order, we’re guaranteed to achieve the right outcome.” (p. 211)
Instead of seeking for a step by step method, Richards and O’Brien encourage us to embrace this complex task without overcorrecting and being discouraged by errors. The main emphasis is to broaden our perspective. We need to read and listen to Christians from different cultures and times.
While I was reading, I found myself struggling with comparing East and West, especially since I am from a “third culture” being Hmong growing in France living as an immigrant in the US. The book can feel like bashing the white majority. I remember doing this kind of analyze after moving in the US: This is how Americans do things. This is how French do it. This is how Hmong people do it. Etc. and as result, we may feel one culture elevated over another.
However, even though it may feel uncomfortable to hear critics about our own culture, whether French or American, Western or Eastern, etc. Yet, there is a need to discuss those matters without being defensive. The authors do not make a moral judgment on western and eastern societies though I think the authors struggle to do so, mainly because the tone is ironic at times. Indeed, I sometimes lost focus on the purpose of the book, and started to embrace one main cultural trend over the other. But what is crucial to see in this book is how culture impacts one’s interpretation of Scripture, and how it is vital to gain knowledge of the biblical cultures to reshape it.
It is also essential to understand that each concept explained in this book has various degrees depending on one’s culture (which is not uniformed even within the same “group of people”). For example, I resonated with the idea of honor and shame. Though I grew up in France – “whitewashed” according to a Hmong friend, I have realized that I have always felt the guilt of sin through the idea of bringing shame on God – my heavenly Father.
In conclusion, this book is a good introduction to culture and hermeneutics, which I believe is what the authors intend it to be. It is written clearly and well illustrated with down-to-earth examples. They avoided abstract discourse by focusing their book on a few principles rather than trying to explain the biblical cultures exhaustively – is that possible anyway? Understanding the biblical culture and worldview has always been complex. I have always found myself and others confused. We overstate. We guess. We try to read into people’s minds. But it does not mean we cannot understand. The Word of God still speaks because we have the promise of the Holy Spirit illuminating God’s people to understand His will. We simply need to review and reshape what we thought we knew.