In their book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien set out to warn Westerners about the fallacy of reading Scripture with cultural blinders that may prevent them from realizing the meaning of what the author was conveying to his original audience. The authors identify nine key factors that cause Westerners and non-Westerners to interpret the Bible differently. Those factors are mores, race and ethnicity, language, individualism and collectivism, honor/shame and right/wrong, time, rules and relationships, virtue and vice, and finding the center of God's will. They break the book down into three sections and use images of icebergs to help explain their claims.
The three iceberg images are as follows; (1) In the first three chapters the authors describe the obvious cultural issues as being surface level glaciers, (2) The next three chapters are on less obvious cultural issues and are compared to glaciers that are below the surface but noticeable if looked for, and (3) The last three chapters describe the cultural issues that are not obvious at all and are like glaciers deep below the surface. The authors are convinced that without understanding these cultural differences it is unlikely that readers are able to correctly interpret Scripture. Richards and O'Brien share personal testimonies of their own cross-cultural experiences and observations in addition to biblical and historical data to help readers relate to what they are attempting to communicate.
Richards and O'Brien have put together an incredibly effective tool to help anyone learn how to interpret Scripture going against cultural preunderstandings or presuppositions. I find that I can only offer a positive critique on this piece of work. The offering of personal examples as well as many examples from Scripture itself kept me intrigued and eager to read more. There is a wealth of helpful knowledge that is presented in this text. Richards and O'Brien begin the book by bringing to light that readers come to the table with certain mores. They define mores as, "folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group." These mores could lead us to the wrong conclusion of a text if there is not an understanding of the culture of the author.
For example, consider the topic of money for a moment. The authors went into detail on just how different Westerners understand wealth compared to non-Westerners. They explained how Westerners view wealth as something that is available to anyone who works hard enough and for those who are lacking it is because they are lazy and how that is much different from how non-Westerners view wealth. They clarified this by saying, "There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves." This, along with several other examples of words that have different concepts between Westerners and non-Westerners, helped me to remember to be intentional on first understanding cultural mores before attempting to interpret the Scripture.
The authors did a fantastic job of bringing awareness to cultural differences between Westerners and non-Westerners without being biased towards either. They simply explained in great detail that without acknowledging and learning what those differences are we set ourselves up to misunderstand one another and therefore we will misunderstand Scripture. Both authors make this claim explicitly without any excuse. The method of breaking down the cultural differences into three levels of glaciers was masterful.
This is a great visual and a powerful tool for the practical learners. Although I understood that my preconceived notions might inhibit me from correctly interpreting biblical and historical teachings, I did not realize the depth of this before reading this text. Now with the teachings and awareness brought forth from Richards and O'Brien, I know that I will be more intentional on understanding the author's culture before trying to interpret heir writings.
I found chapter five to be one of the more intriguing chapters in the book. In this chapter, Richards and O'Brien tackle the differences between a right/wrong culture (Westerners) and a honor/shame culture (non-Westerners). I too have experienced this through my travels to Central Asia and working with Chechens there. They use these differences as another piece of evidence demonstrating how we cannot correctly interpret Scripture without understanding the cultural differences.
The authors said this concerning a Western view of right and wrong, "Our point is that our decisions to act rightly are not necessarily made with other people in mind-to please others, for example-but on the basis of an objective and largely individual sense of right and wrong." As the chapter continues they define the honor/shame culture that is found in non-Western cultures. "In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them." A family name is a virtue that is highly regarded and honored in non-Western cultures. To shame your family name would be devastating to the entire family.
Richards and O'Brien presented a powerful case against attempting to interpret Scripture before learning about the culture from whom the Scriptures were written to and from. They bring enough evidence to demonstrate how the differing cultures can lead to differing interpretations but only one can be correct. Their argument is clear and to the point. It is presented without adding unnecessary verbiage to try and convince their readers of their opinion or by watering down their main points with an overload of general information. The flow of the book is well thought out and masterfully delivered. I found their work to be free of contradictions or inconsistencies that would cause their readers to question their claims. For only having nine chapters and a little more than two hundred pages, this book can equip readers as well as many others books of this nature that are twice as long.
It is important to understand that the only way we can truly understand God's Word is through the power of the Holy Spirit. John writes, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26, ESV). Then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we should be diligent in seeking out other resources and tools to help us dig deeper. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien is a must read for all students of the Bible.
No matter what type of position one may hold, whether it be in serving in the ministry as a full-time vocation or being a layperson teaching Sunday school classes, this book will bring them great insight into God's Word. No matter or what level of understanding they may have of the Bible, this would serve as a valuable resource. When it comes to seeking God and understanding his Word, we can never have too many tools or too much understanding. Proverb's speak to the importance of seeking understanding, "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight" (Proverbs 4:7, ESV). By furthering our understanding of God's Word, and by learning more about the different cultures and people groups that God has created, we can then better fulfill our purpose in life of loving God and loving others.
Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O'Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western
Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012.