For anyone who’s ever tried seriously to read the Bible, the gap between our 21st century American culture and the ancient world of the Scriptures has proven to be very challenging, if not outright impossible. Plenty of earnest Christians have tried to understand the Scriptures only to be thwarted by the Levirate Law or unspoken rules of Honor and Shame.
Bible teachers know: there’s no easy bridge across the cultural divide. But finally there’s an excellent, accessible book that at least gives us some climbing rope.
Okay, you know what? Forget the whole chasm metaphor and just go get a copy of Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. As the authors state early in the book,
The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. It is very hard to know what goes without being said in another culture. But often we are not even aware of what goes without being said in our own culture. This is why misunderstanding and misinterpretation happen…
Our goal is to raise this question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook a famine, what else do we fail to notice? [emphasis original]
It’s hard to overstate how important this statement is. Some of the worst (and most influential) theological systems in the West right now are built on supposedly ‘objective’ readings of the Bible that uphold a ‘plain reading’ of Scriptures. Randy and Brandon deftly expose how foolish such statements are.
Again and again, they demonstrating how huge are the gaps between what went without being said then and what goes without being said now.
Drawing on both personal and professional experiences in other cultures and as students of the Scriptures, Rand and Brandon move through three layers of cultural assumptions:
- “Surface” Differences: obvious problematic differences such as mores, ethnicity and language barriers.
- “Just Below the Surface”: less obvious cultural assumptions like individualism vs. collectivism, honor/shame vs. right/wrong and how we conceive of time.
- “Deep” Differences: assumptions so deeply embedded in our culture we can hardly imagine anyone thinking differently: the priority of relationships over rules, what counts as a vice or virtue, and the idea that the scriptures are mainly about me.
Each section is clear, concise and loaded with examples both from lived experiences and from the Scriptures.
The greatest strength of the book is that each chapter ends with practical ways to begin to overcome reading “with Western eyes*”. Though the authors are quick to warn that there’re no shortcuts, they offer guidelines that can and should become part and parcel of any serious student’s reading strategy.
As a teacher, I’ve often found myself struggling to explain how differently non-Western cultures see the world, and how differently we ought to be reading the Scriptures accordingly. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes has already become my go-to teaching tool, and I’ve given out several copies to friends.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a better student of the Bible. You don’t have to be be a bible scholar to enjoy this book, or to apply what you’ll learn. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes is an indispensable tool in the interpreter’s utility belt!
Bottom Line: Anyone serious about reading and understanding the Bible should get this book and read it immediately. Even better, read it with a friend or five.
YOUR TURN: What are your biggest struggles in reading the Bible? What cultural assumptions have you uncovered in your own life?
*I would be remiss to mention that the authors take great care to acknowledge how inherently problematic the term “Western Eyes” is. They deserve to be commended for unpacking it as well as they do.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free for review purposes from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”