TedRead Review: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

ByE. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien
PublishedJuly 31, 2012
Pages: 241
Page Numbers Source ISBN:  0830837825
Ted’s Rating: 4 of 5 Stars

I am reminded of a story from my days living in Eastern Europe. An old Baptist church-attending woman received a copy of Decision magazine from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. While she couldn’t read the English text, she did look at the pictures and was horrified by the women – Christian women – wearing makeup. She thought, “The Bible teaches us that we should not adorn ourselves!” She was cut to the heart and a tear welled up in her eye. It rolled down her cheek and plopped right into her beer!
That little joke (not taken from the book) is the essence of this book’s thesis. Not only do we have our own culture but the Bible has its own as well. We must learn to understand the areas of our own cultural blinders and be able to see the Bible in its context.  Simple enough but rarely do I see this sort of analysis by Western theologians.
Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, which colors the illustrations in a very helpful way, and O’Brien is an editor at Leadership Journal.  They lead the reader through nine areas of caution in regard to understanding the Bible mono-culturally. The book is filled with excellent examples highlighting the arguments being made using both real life experience and Biblical texts. I highly recommend that you read the account of David and Bathsheba found in chapter 5.
This book is not an attack on Western values or a defense of them. It also avoids the politically correct position that “all things non-Western are noble.” It simply points out the ways that Westerners can assume their worldview into the Bible. It is a timely book; the immigrant push into the USA is forcing American Christians to look seriously at cross-cultural ministry regardless of geography.
This is a balanced, concise and well written treatment of the topic. I would actually say that it is “bravely written” because the people that will take exception are those who fall prey to the traps described therein.

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Ted's Highlights and Notes

We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. (kl 74-75)
it is a better method to speak of what the passage meant to the original hearers, and then to ask how that applies to us. (kl 80-81)
all Bible reading is necessarily contextual. There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. (kl 81-83)
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. (kl 88-89)
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. (kl 123-24)
Becoming aware of our cultural assumptions and how they influence our reading of Scripture are important first steps beyond the paralysis of self-doubt and toward a faithful reading and application of the Bible. (kl 128-29)
we talk about nine differences between Western and non-Western cultures that we should be aware of when we interpret the Bible. (kl 130) [Ted Notes: These are: 1) mores, race and ethnicity, language, individualism versus collectivism, honor/shame versus right/wrong, time, rules versus relationships, virture and vice, and self-centered readings of scripture.
If our cultural blind spots keep us from reading the Bible correctly, then they can also keep us from applying the Bible correctly. (kl 148-49)
The generalizations we make about Westerners will probably most accurately describe white, American males. This is not because we consider this group the most important or even the most representative of a Western worldview. But this is the group that has dominated the conversation about theology and biblical interpretation for the last few centuries. (kl 186-87)
Language is perhaps the most obvious difference between cultures. It's the tip of the iceberg, the part of worldview that is clearly visible. (kl 220-21)
It is culture that supplies the connotations of a word. (kl 229)
mores are "accepted without question." That is, they are views a community considers closed to debate. (kl 241-43)
the church and the world often hold contradictory mores. Our options, then, are either to stubbornly resist the infiltration of a cultural more we consider antithetical to a Christian one or to compromise. (kl 273-75)
Christians are tempted to believe that our mores originate from the Bible. (kl 287-89)
What can be more dangerous is that our mores are a lens through which we view and interpret the world… Indeed, if they are not made explicit, our cultural mores can lead us to misread the Bible. (kl 300-302)
Once we've become aware of our own mores-what goes without being said for us-we should consider what went without saying for the original audience to whom Paul's letter was addressed. (kl 358-59)
Westerners instinctively consider wealth an unlimited resource. (kl 375-76)
Outside the West, wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. 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. (kl 381-83)
Our cultural mores tell us sexual modesty is necessary while economic modesty is considerate: preferable but not necessary. (kl 408-9)
Food in the Bible was often, if not always, a matter of fellowship and social relationships. When the first Christians were trying to decide whether Gentile Christians should keep Jewish dietary laws, they weren't just quibbling over doctrine. Just like we do, ancients were transferring their feelings about certain food onto the people who ate them. (kl 450-51)
This is what we mean by being colorblind: the belief that ethnic differences don't matter. Of course it would be fine if what we meant was that everyone should be treated with equal dignity or enjoy the same rights. 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. (kl 534-36)
Like the world we inhabit today, the worlds of both the Old and New Testaments were ethnically diverse and richly textured by an assortment of cultures, languages and customs… Prejudice comes in all varieties, yesterday, today and tomorrow. (kl 552-54)
When the churches in this region act foolishly, Paul writes to chasten them. He addresses them harshly: "You foolish Galatians!" (Gal 3:1). This is roughly equivalent to someone in the United States saying, "You stupid rednecks." Paul is employing an ethnic slur to get his readers' attention. (kl 569-70)
Many Americans fail to note that the problem with Moses' wife was her ethnicity (kl 585-87)
To the Hebraic Jews, these Diaspora brethren were second-tier Jews. We might not recognize the significance of the regional prejudice. (kl 614-16)
The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians. (kl 668-70)
How do we uncover what goes without being said about race and ethnicity? A first-and difficult-step is making a thorough and honest inventory of your assumptions about people who are different from you. (kl 670-71)
Additionally, read Scripture with a Bible atlas handy. (kl 675-76)
The radical nature of the multiethnic body of Christ is sometimes lost on those of us who believe we have put prejudice behind us once and for all. (kl 693-94)
But language is much more than words. As we have argued in these first chapters, the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. Ironically, this is as true of language as of any other aspect of culture-and perhaps more so. (kl 711-12)
Western readers typically believe that if something is important, then we'll have a word for it. And the more important something is in our culture, the more likely we are to develop specialized language to describe it. (kl 733-34)
Problems arise for interpretation when another language has several words for something and ours has only one. (kl 745-46)
We also perceive a corollary point to be true: if we don't have a word for something, then it is likely not very important to us. (kl 754-55)
Some even suggest that one can have a hard time experiencing something for which one has no corresponding word.'(kl 763)
we often interpret this verse to mean, "If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you." But this isn't what Jesus meant. (kl 770-73)
People who speak only one language, which is most Americans, often assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between languages. This derives from how we understand reality. We assume that everyone interprets reality like we do. (kl 781-82)
Sometimes there is no equivalent (word in our language). (kl 783)
What it says is not always what it means. The translator repeatedly has to decide between translating what a word or phrase says and what it means. (kl 813-14)
"All things work together for our good" is probably the better way to translate Romans 8:28. Yet we commonly read it as "God works all things together for our good." Sometimes we assign agency (and thus motives) where the biblical text is actually silent. (kl 839-41)
Paul introduced Lydia to Christianity (Acts 16). She reciprocated by hosting Paul and his team at her estate. The language of patronage permeated everyday life. (kl 863)
Serious misunderstanding can occur when we fail to recognize all that goes without being said about language and how we use it. (kl 927-28)
Western societies are, by and large, individualistic societies. The most important entity in an individualistic culture is the individual person. The person's identity comes by distinguishing herself from the people around her. (kl 1001-2)
In a collectivist culture, the most important entity is the community-the family, the tribe or the country-and not the individual.' (kl 1010-12)
Conformity, a virtue in a collectivist culture, is a vice in ours. (kl 1044-46)
In antiquity, teamwork and cooperation were the norms. Paul always had a team. (kl 1072-76)
Paul's missionary endeavors were a team effort. This is more than just a bit of trivia. (kl 1081-82)
In collectivist societies, conversion is not strictly an individual decision, so it is often not an individual experience. (kl 1090)
The non-Western concept of family is broader than the Western. But Jesus expanded it even more. For Jesus, family not only designated one's immediate, biological relatives but included all who are knit together in faith. (kl 1115-16)
Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become-permanently and spiritually-a part of the church. We become part of the family of God, with all the responsibilities and expectations that word connotes in the non-Western world. (kl 1141-42)
So why go to church? Why worship with a group? Because, in some way we may not fully understand, the Spirit indwells the group in a way the Spirit does not indwell the individual. (kl 1158-59)
One practice that has been extremely useful for both of us in trying to identify with a collectivist worldview is reading fiction written by authors with a collectivist perspective. (kl 1175-76)
Additionally, make a conscious effort to read the you in biblical texts as plural. (kl 1178)
In biblical times, it was an honor/shame world. (kl 1217)
ancients avoided doing evil not primarily because they were concerned about right or wrong, but because others were watching. (kl 1218-19)
Westerners to polarize choices into two opposing categories.'(kl 1227)
To summarize, in an innocence/guilt culture (which includes most Western societies), the laws of society, the rules of the church, local mores and the code of the home are all internalized in the person. The goal is that when a person breaks one of these, her or his conscience will be pricked. (kl 1263-65)
In an honor/shame society, such as that of the Bible and much of the non-Western world today, the driving force is to not bring shame upon yourself, your family, your church, your village, your tribe or even your faith. The determining force is the expectations of your significant others (primarily your family). (kl 1266-67)
God worked through the honor/shame system, but we would err if we implied this was merely a system. God himself is concerned about honor/shame even if we Westerners are not. Throughout the Old Testament, God is concerned about the glory/honor of his name. (kl 1379-81)
Because the Bible was written by Middle Eastern authors in cultures that traded in the currency of honor and shame, we need to be sensitive to the language of honor and shame in Scripture if we hope to learn how to live faithfully as Christians. (kl 1434-36)
Because we in the United States fret over time, we figure God does, too. (kl 1584-85)
Much of the Bible's wisdom literature is concerned with kairos. It is not enough to know a wise saying. Wisdom is knowing when to use it. (kl 1647-48)
When you run across a word that indicates time is under discussion (day, hour, season, time, opportunity, etc.), decide whether you think the biblical author has chronos or kairos in mind. (kl 1651-52)
We can't stand it when rules seem to mean different things to different people. (kl 1685-87)
In short, God's people have always recognized divinely ordained laws and patterns in nature. At the same time, they have maintained that God is not confined by these laws. (kl 1716-18)
Today Westerners have a tendency to view all relationships in terms of rules or laws. (kl 1744)
Westerners misread the biblical text when we assume that the rules, which we can see, are the total extent of the relationship, failing to see the part of the iceberg under the water, out of sight. (kl 1755-56)
Unfortunately, modern Western exegetes often define patronage-a key element of first-century Roman society-using forensic language. We describe the relationship between a patron and a client as contractual, like a business, rather than as familial.'(kl 1766-67)
Understanding the preeminence of relationships in the first century has profound implications for how we Westerners interpret the Bible. Instinctively prioritizing rules over relationships can lead us to misunderstand some of Paul's actions and motives. It may even cause us to misunderstand his gospel of salvation by grace through faith. (kl 1786-88)
The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions. (kl 1814)
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. (kl 1899-1900)
As Westerners, we have two tendencies when interpreting these lists of vices. First, we often rank them. We consider certain vices as worse than others. (kl 1993)
Our second tendency is to emphasize vices and deemphasize virtues. (kl 2001-2)
In addition to ranking vices, we also supplement the biblical lists with virtues and vices from our own culture. (kl 2013)
Let us mention five Western virtues that are either nonbiblical (that do not have support from the Scriptures) or anti-biblical (that directly contradict the teaching of the Scriptures). These are  Self-sufficiency. (kl 2022-23) Fighting for freedom. (kl 2027) Pax Americana. (kl 2035) Leadership. (kl 2045) and Tolerance. (kl 2053)
perhaps the best way to become sensitive to our own presuppositions-what goes without being said for us-is to read the writing of Christians from different cultures and ages. (kl 2107-8)
Western Christians, especially North American Christians, tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us-to each of us and all of us individually. More to the point, we are confident that us always includes me specifically. And this may not be the case. (kl 2132-33)
The average teen, according to Smith, doesn't view humans as existing to do the will of God; rather, they view God as existing to meet human needs. (kl 2161-62)
The shift to individual, reader-centered interpretation was natural, post-Gutenberg. But we must never lose sight of the implications of that shift. (kl 2181-82)
To avoid misapplication, we should determine what the text meant then before we try to apply it to ourselves now. (kl 2232-33)
This cultural assumption about the supremacy of me is the one to which we Westerners are perhaps blindest. We rightly search for the center of God's will, but with the unspoken assumption that once we find it, the seat will have my individual name on it. (kl 2307-8)
When we realize that each passage of Scripture is not about me, we begin gradually to see that the true subject matter of the Bible, what the book is really about, is God's redeeming work in Christ. (kl 2315-16)
beware of thinking of the Bible in terms of "what this means to me."(kl 2318)
to avoid deriving a strictly individual interpretation of a biblical passage, ask yourself how you might apply the passage differently if you interpret it in corporate terms, rather than in individual terms. (kl 2320-21)
An Asian emphasis on community is just as much an accident of language and culture as our emphasis on individuality. All of us read some parts faithfully and misread other parts. Because of our different worldviews, we often misread different parts. (kl 2413-15)
Star Rating:
 1 Don't read it
 2 Read only if you have to
 3 Read it if the topic interests you
 4 Read it - it's good!
 5 Required reading

kl means Kindle Location
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