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Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible Paperback – November 4, 2012
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"Written in engaging prose, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is a must-have for students of the Bible, and especially students of biblical apologetics. Any seasoned traveler knows that when someone visits a foreign country for the first time, he or she will be well served by a competent guide. When it comes to the social world of the Bible, Richards and O'Brien serve as tour guides par excellence." (James Patrick Holding, Christian Research Journal 36, no. 5)
"For many, [this] book will offer a dose of humility with hope. One is encouraged to admit, 'I don't know' while at the same time is spurred on to study the Bible more. Missionaries will be challenged to think more theologically and to listen respectfully to nationals who live around them. Theologians will be forced to consider how the adage 'context is king' applies to their own worldview. This is a perfect book to discuss within small groups at church or as teams on the mission field." (Jackson Wu, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July 2013)
"This is an outstanding treatment of a complex and important topic. . . . This would make a good textbook for courses in hermeneutics or biblical interpretation, cultural studies, prolegomena, or theological method, as well as small-group studies in a local church. The book is written at a level that educated laypeople as well as pastors, teachers, and scholars will find helpful." (Glenn Rl. Kreider, Bibliotheca Sacra, October–December 2013)
"A politely confrontational book that bids you trade in your cultural spectacles and rethink how your worldview distorts your scriptural conclusions. Sex, money, food, self-focus, prejudices, and much more: developed with apt storytelling and enlightening examples." (Worship Leader Magazine, May 2013)
"A fascinating guide for any serious Bible reader! Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes reveals the 'habits of the mind' that might blind us to the Bible's intended message. Richards and O'Brien unpack the intricacies and nuances of cultural communication to help people better understand the Bible. To help you know--and live--the Christian life more faithfully." (Nikki Toyama-Szeto, Urbana program director, coauthor of Partnering with the Global Church)
"Richards and O'Brien open our eyes to the crosscultural nature of the Bible. Their book is a helpful resource in understanding Scripture on its own terms, without imposing our assumptions on the biblical authors and their first readers." (Lindsay Olesberg, author, The Bible Study Handbook, and senior associate for Scripture engagement, Lausanne Movement)
"The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes make a convincing case that those who trust in the Bible should (for biblical reasons) be more self-conscious about themselves. Their demonstration of how unself-conscious mores influence the understanding of Scripture is as helpful as the many insights they draw from Scripture itself. This is a good book for better understanding ourselves, the Christian world as it now exists and the Bible." (Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame, coauthor, Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia)
"Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is an important book that comes along at a critical moment in global evangelical history. Helpful examples reveal our cultural tendencies and biases that could hinder a deeper reading of Scripture. The authors help us to recognize our blind spots and offer insight that honors the intention of Scripture to be read in the context of community. I am grateful to the authors for their effort to be self-reflective and engage in a critical examination of our engagement with Scripture from within Western culture." (Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary, author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity)
"This is a revolutionary book for evangelical Bible-believers. If its readers end the book motivated to ask the questions it invites and even inspired to identify other possible misreadings because of Western cultural blinders that have not been discussed, they will be more ready to live out the kind of biblically faithful, Christ-honoring and God-fearing lives that they desire to and that the world needs." (Amos Yong, J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology, Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia)
About the Author
Brandon J. O'Brien is editor-at-large for Leadership and an instructor of religion at the College of DuPage. He is completing his doctorate in theological studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. O'Brien is the author of The Strategically Small Church.
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The authors, both well-credentialed evangelistic theologians, have each spent significant time in various locales ranging from Arkansas (Brandon) to Indonesia (Randy) and use their experiences in far-flung stations to make good points about how an expression in one place is interpreted quite differently in others. “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said” (12). Unfortunately, most of the cross-cultural examples come from 21st century Indonesia (Randy), not 1st century Palestine. Arguably, the collectivist, family-oriented Indonesia of 2002 is a good place to make a case for not assuming that all people understand things the same way, but gives little insight into what may have been going on in Nazareth 2,000 years ago. Although there are hundreds of scriptural references, from Genesis to Revelations, very few of them actually provide any insight into how we moderns are supposedly misreading scripture based on our 21st century mores. And many of the putative insights are little more than minute, nitpicky differentiations, as in the discussion of 1st C “modesty” where they make a big deal out of the difference between “sexual modesty” and “public modesty” in the matter of women covering their heads (43). Another notable example is the discussion of what it means to be “first” (relating to Paul’s letter about Adam being born first and thus having authority over women in teaching). The authors claim that it’s our modern understanding of ‘first’ as meaning “better” which leads us astray, since in biblical times the rules of primogeniture simply meant the firstborn received the greater inheritance, the family title, assumed responsibility etc.….the authors say (13). But if that doesn’t somehow mean “better” or “preferred” it’s hard to know what would. In fact, its seems to the modern reader to be a rather dodgy apologetic for giving women 2nd-hand status.
That said, one excellent insight has to do with the use of the Greek word 'makarios' in the Sermon on the Mount (the Beatitudes), usually translated as “blessed” or “blessing.” But the Greek more properly translates as “a feeling of contentment” or “when one knows one’s place in the world and is satisfied with that place” (75). The English language prefers clear subjects for its verbs, so it goes without saying (for us) that God blesses people. So we interpret the verse at Matt 5:9 as “If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you.” But what the Jesus figure really meant was: “If you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place.” In other words, you will experience the feeling of contentment with your life if you are a peacemaker. This is part of a discussion on the important Whorfian hypothesis (aka Sapir-Whorf) to account for how our language shapes our worldview and in turn filters what we notice and how we interpret reality (71). Unfortunately, having made the point about makarios, the book doesn’t then go ahead and relate this wonderful theme to the actual subject matter of the book. We do however get a delightful example of the many distinctions of the word ‘rice’ in Indonesia compared to Western society (73) — as well as the Indonesian ideas of “privacy” and “quiet time.”
Interestingly, we also learn that the term 'Galatae' (as in the epistle to the Galatians) was used by the Greeks to denote Celtic tribes in the 270s BCE. The "Land of the Celts" is the Latin transliteration of the Greek 'celtica.' However, the authors don’t even get this quite right, calling the Roman term for Galatia a “mispronunciation of the word Celts” (57).
Alas, along the way the authors make what we might politely call “rookie mistakes,” considering that one (Randy) is a Ph.D. and dean of the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University and the other (Brandon) is completing his doctorate in theology. For example, they try to introduce a point saying, “assuming the first gospel was written by the disciple Matthew” (79) — yet most biblical scholars acknowledge, and have for decades, that Mark was the first gospel composed (despite the conventional order presented in the N.T.) . Furthermore, Matt is usually dated toward the last quarter of the 1st C, attributed to a Greek-speaking anonymous Jew in Syria, not an Aramaic-speaking contemporary of Jesus. This is first-year theology school stuff.
Another oddity has to do with the question of whether there were female apostles in the early church. The authors bring up Junia and co-laborer (or husband?) Andronicus, whom the authors say are “both called apostles” in Rom 16:7. The effort to show how our modern culture clings to “rules” rather than “relationships” is laudable but once again their scholarship is lacking. They do acknowledge that scholars hotly debate about Junia/Junias, but then make the wild claim that “scholarship has now shown conclusively that Junia is a feminine name” (172). But that’s either a red herring or simple lack of awareness of the debate since the question has never been whether ‘Junia’ is feminine, but whether the Greek word Paul uses is <I>᾿Ιουνιᾶν</I> or <i>᾿Ιουνίαν</i> [‘iounia(s)] and is therefore best translated as Junia or Junias. Further, the real debate questions whether Paul was saying “of note among the apostles” to mean “prominent among” or “well known to the apostles.”
This IVP publication is full of gross over-generalizations (“In the West, rules must apply to everyone and they must apply all the time”) (168) and, many people thought the world was going to end in 2000…so we called it Y2K (145); and Westerners think mainly in terms of 'chronos' (like clock time) whereas ancients thought in terms of 'kairos' (seasons, situations) (142). Of course we get an excellent Indonesian example of the difference there (139).
Nevertheless, while the concept of this book is excellent — because the Middle Eastern bible was written in terms of collectivism, honor and shame, and family expectations, we need to be sensitive to the differences in cultural outlooks — there are much better treatments of the theme like Spong’s <i>Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy</i> or his <i>Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.</i> or Scott Korb's <i>Life in Year One</i>. These (and others) address the “misreading” issues in a much more scholarly and on-topic way with fewer diversions into well-meaning but generic Intro to Anthropology discussions.
Finally, a style note. Because there are two authors with different missionary experiences, the authors chose to write incessantly in first person mode with “I (Randy) was often struck that telling stories for Indonesians…” (147) or “My (Brandon’s) acting career…” (100). This was fine for a while but after about a hundred instances, we yearn for a simple 3rd-person style: “Brandon’s acting career…”
Top international reviews
Well written, engaging and thought provoking this is the book that can ignite a real voyage of discovery.
An important - actually, vital - read for Western Christendom
Also, the discourse on individualism, shame and honour cultures explain a few things within the Bible for me. The idea of waiting for the right moment in time to do something vs. western mathematical, resource-like understanding of time has even had a liberating effect on me.
As for what could be improved: Sometimes things seemed to be said more than once or could have been more consisely said. I would have wished for more scriptural examples, to prove arguments better. Also I would have wished for more examples from diverse countries. Many came from one of the author's experiences in Indonesia, and I wonder how he knew that these things are the same in other countries and more than that, were so in ancient Israel.
As a whole, it was an enlightening and interesting read that was very helpful to me. I'm not sure if I agree with every point but with most, and reading through the book felt like my rigid, narrow understanding of biblical thought (which led me to often be frustrated: "Why does none of my interpretation approaches make sense with this or that verse?) was broadened and grew more insightful by realizing "Ah! It's because these people back then had a different mentality and would approach some topics different than I would."