In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, authors Richards and O’Brien offer many reasons why Western Christians may be misunderstanding scripture because they are imposing their own context and assumptions on it rather than viewing it from the original writers’ and recipients’ frame of reference (2012). The hidden and unspoken assumptions and values of culture and language exist both in the original context, as well as our modern context, and these need to be seen and understood in order for us to clearly understand the meaning, tone, and implied meanings beneath the words we read. The authors cover influences on our perception such as individualism, moralism, views of time and its use, virtues, self-centeredness and our tendencies towards absolutism. Surprisingly, the authors also discuss the prevalence of ethnic associations such as the lower social status of people from certain towns or ethnic groups. As it turns out, this is prevalent, not only in our day, but in the Biblical times and narratives. Understanding these frameworks, the authors explain, will help us see our own perspectives and those in the Biblical narratives, and in so doing, understand the scriptures better. They also help us understand how to preach the gospel in foreign cultures that have their own set of cultural associations and rules.
Cultural norms, i.e. what is considered appropriate or inappropriate in society, are one of the filters we bring to scripture, and which also exist in the scriptures. Accepted rules of behavior regarding food, sex, and wealth and entertainment underpin much of what is said and unsaid in the Bible. Sexual mores, for instance, might explain why a woman caught in adultery was brought by the Pharisees to Jesus, rather than the man, or both man and woman (John 8:1-11). Sexual mores may come into play as we reach polygamous cultures with the gospel, and being too strict or too lenient with the desired monogamous definition of marriage may have different outcomes with both evangelism and pastoring believers (Friedersdorf, 2015; Muthengi, 1995; Schlehlein, 2013). The authors include a fascinating historical episode where the Apostle Thomas’ emphasis on sexual purity and the value of singleness was not only readily adopted by the ascetic Hindus, they practiced it to the extreme of forbidding or frowning upon marriage, which is arguably not a biblical value. Similarly, westerners may have misunderstood the Apostle Paul’s requirements for female head coverings, thinking them a rule rather than an appeal merely to modest dress.
The authors mention that the western view that associates poverty with sloth and lack of ambition may not be a complete view, either compared to scripture, or compared to the views in the majority of non-western societies. In fact, among some countries, poverty is seen as a virtue, and giving to beggars an expected, if not appreciated chance to do good. The authors well say that the scriptures seem clear that hoarding is to be avoided, as is flaunting wealth, and that the latter may be behind the Pauline encouragement for women not to be finely adorned, rather than an outright prohibition on gold jewelry. It is my opinion, however, that poverty and lack of human flourishing are often, if always caused by a lack of Godliness and virtue, either in the poor themselves, or in those who hold power and keep opportunity from them. It makes sense, that poverty is not God’s norm, though it may be a chosen condition in order to fulfill the gospel. But predominating views of wealth differ in the west, the east, and the Bible, and we need to account for them. Avoiding the twin poles of asceticism and needless luxury seems to be the paradoxical choice here for Christians, but arguments about the relative wealth of Christians in the west compared to the rest of the world are a perennial discussion. (Chilton, 1985; Sider, 2015)
Understanding dietary mores seems relevant to understanding Biblical culture, especially with the prominent Jewish backdrop. When Peter was shown by God that he should accept gentiles as part of the Church, this may have been as objectionable to him as eating pork, something that his culture probably taught him to feel revulsion for (Acts 10:9-16). While eating meat offered to idols may mean nothing to us, to many in Paul’s day, and indeed, in many cultures today, dietary habits and prohibitions may speak volumes unbeknownst to us missionaries. Paul’s sage advice on this topic (1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14) can help us not unnecessarily offend others, while preserving our right to do such things in the face of Phariseeism (no harm in offending us religionists sometimes). Dietary mores also apply to our use of stimulants or intoxicants such as tobacco, caffeine, or alcohol, and again there may be a balance between freedom and conscience on one hand, and the impact on others. But cultures almost always have value associations with such activities.
Lastly, although the authors barely mention entertainment mores, religious strictures on various popular entertainments are always in play in modern church life, and are worthy of mention only in that they often reflect a misbegotten effort to avoid the trappings of worldly values. What is often looked back upon is meaningless legalism often starts with laudable goals, to keep us “unspotted from the world” (James 1:26-27). However, while such activities may arise out of sensuality (social dancing), gambling (cards), or pure fun (swimming), often religionists fail to separate modernity (new means of communicating and play) with worldliness (sinful values or activities). While some proscriptions on entertainment, such as not attending strip clubs, or watching/listening to media with profanity, or attending beaches where people are scantily clad seem reasonable, prohibitions must not take the place of prescriptions to love God, love your neighbor, and allow people the grace to obey their own conscience in questionable matters (Romans 14) rather than imposing strict rules of separation.
Race and Ethnicity
Contemporary western culture is duplicitous on race, on one hand wanting a multiracial and colorblind experience, while on the other affirming only the positive differences between ethnic groups. Perhaps the latter progressive stance is a better way to understand both the current world and the scriptures, although ignoring the negative stereotypes, often earned, would be shortsighted. When the apostles are recognized as Galileans, that may carry a negative connotation that we ought to understand. If Moses’ Ethiopian wife (Numbers 12) caused consternation among his relatives, was her ethnicity a problem because she was considered beneath him, or above his station? It may be that the latter is true. When Paul acknowledges the reputation of the Cretans as “liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons,” (Titus 1: 12-13) is he agreeing with an ethnic slur or attacking their predominant culture? Are such stereotypes useful if not abused? Is Paul’s quoting one of their own internal critics necessary for such statements by outsiders? Probably that is wise, if not ethically legitimate. I think our own “prophets” might acknowledge some predominant negative traits in our own culture, such as materialism, consumerism, and loose sexual mores.
The authors make a couple of good points here, primarily that (a) our language may lack enough specific words for shades of nuance in the original, and vice versa, and (b), sometimes writers like Paul used language and paradigms from their own culture that we are no longer aware of (e.g. the Greek charis and pistis, a.k.a. grace and faith). It is a little unsettling to me that we may misinterpret a lot of scripture because we fail to understand the paradigms of previous cultures, especially work arrangements such as patronage and indentured servitude. We often read these through the lenses of land baronage or antebellum American slavery, respectively, and not much else. It is surprising to think that Paul’s framing of grace and faith come largely out of the common work arrangements of his day rather than entirely from some ancient Hebrew rubric.
Individualism v. Covenantal and Family Salvation and Faith
The chapter critiquing Western individualism felt a little one-sided, and seemed to gloss over the lack of liberty and individual human development in the more “safe” communal societies. Ben Franklin coined an aphorism that most Americans know and embrace regarding the safety found in surrendering to the larger group:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. (Franklin, 1756)
While American hyper-individualism does err on the side of neglecting family and history, and is insensitive to the reality that the majority of the world values community over the individual, I wonder if the authors erred too much on the side of communalism. While they did not go as far as to promote a covenantal approach to salvation (a.k.a. “household salvation”, which would also lead one to perhaps support pedobaptism) (Colley, 2004; Johnson, 1999), I wonder if more could have been written about the counter-cultural nature of the gospel, and the radical individualism implied in Jesus’ appeals to leave, if not hate family by comparison (Luke 14:26). The argument over whether Christianity, though creating a new unified community, is “collectivist” is worth exploring. In favor of that view, however, is the use of the plural pronoun in Jesus’ instructions on prayer (“Our father…give us”), which may point us to a greater community emphasis than Americans may prefer, but deducing collectivism based on this is a longer stretch.
Honor and Shame
This topic is covered in much more detail and with more eloquence in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (Georges & Baker, 2016), but the authors here make a couple of novel contributions to the discussion. Firstly, that King David’s obtuse lack of conscience with respect to Bathsheba and her husband can be explained by an honor-shame dynamic instead of a guilt-innocence approach (perhaps), but also that the final judgment of Christ is also a public judgment, which speaks of public shame, not just individual guilt. However, it still mystifies me how the authors could intimate that the crowing rooster somehow shamed the Apostle Peter into repentance!
Virtues and Vices
The authors also ask the reader to consider how each culture ranks the importance of various virtues and vices, and how they supplement a Biblical list with additional items. Americans, they intone, add procrastination, lack of planning, and plagiarism to our list of vices, while touting self-sufficiency, liberty, and the use of force to bring political peace as additional virtues. At the same time, we Americans may be deprioritizing vices that scripture may find more important, like gluttony, luxury, and greed, as well as virtues like generosity, community, and peacemaking. It is certain that each age may re-prioritize virtues and vices based on contemporary challenges, but we must understand scripture’s priorities as contrasted to our own, if for no other reason than to understand the dynamics and meanings of the Biblical texts. Whether or not praxis demands a different priority for our day is a separate challenge.
While all scripture is written for our edification and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16-7, Romans 15:4), and “all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20), the authors argue that, based on the aforementioned verses, we often miss the intended meaning of scripture because we are looking for promises to apply to ourselves, rather than see whom they were made to and for what time and purpose. This self-referential viewpoint is compounded by the self-focused and emotionally needy milieu of America’s culture of “moral therapeutic deism,” a term first coined by Christian Smith (2009). We seem to always be asking the innocent question “How can this help me?” instead of perhaps the more important questions of independent meaning and application. I agree with this assessment, although I blanch at too much antagonism towards a “Christian” perspective that demeans the exploration, stewardship, and embracing of the created self that Jesus loves and seeks to restore. Too much self-loathing is left to fester with well-meaning and pious appeals to “find out who you are in Christ” and denunciations of selfishness when what is needed is a healthy assessment of one’s self (Romans 12:3), and a plan to allow God to restore, rather than replace the individual soul.
This volume is a wonderful introduction to the factors that form the unseen assumptions beneath our language, culture, and thinking, and open our eyes the same factors both in the Biblical texts and the cultures we may be ministering in. The authors are to be praised for recognizing that their perspectives as white American males is limited, and they do a respectable job attempting to be self-critical while reorienting our thinking to Biblical cultural factors that explain the sometimes-mysterious interactions of scripture that our cultural viewpoint could not fathom. I blanched a bit at their criticism of American individualism as compared to communitarian culture, since they failed to mention the significant down-sides of the latter, as well as the radical individual call of Jesus to leave family to follow Him.
One additional criticism is that the chapter on honor/shame cultures could be improved by underscoring the Biblical case for universal human conscience (Romans 1:18-20, 28, 2:14-15, ) whether or not the culture is based on honor/shame or not. It is not an either/or proposition, not even in scripture or first century Judaism. Rather than giving the impression that paints a dichotomy between the contemporary West on one hand, and the Bible and the rest of the world on the other, it would be better to emphasize the Biblical challenge and foundation of both views, and the downside of ignoring one or the other. Yes, we are seeking understanding, but also a biblical standard, and I think that is lost in the honor shame discussion. However, as mentioned, Georges and Baker’s book dedicated to this one topic is more comprehensive (2016). Overall, this should be a must-read book for students of the Bible.
Chilton, D. (1985). Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators: A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider (3 edition). Inst for Christian Economics.
Colley, C. (2004). Do the “Household Baptisms” Justify Infant Baptism? http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1384
Franklin, B. (1756). Founders Online: Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, 11 November 1755. University of Virginia Press. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-06-02-0107
Friedersdorf, C. (2015, July 9). A Gay Marriage Supporter’s Case Against Polygamous Marriage. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/case-against-polygamy/397823/
Georges, J., & Baker, M. D. (2016). Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials. IVP Academic.
Johnson, G. (1999). The development of John Calvin’s doctrine of infant baptism in reaction to the Anabaptists. Mennonite Quarterly Review, 73(4), 803-. Gale Academic OneFile.
Muthengi, J. K. (1995). Polygamy And The Church In Africa: Biblical, Historical, And Practical Perspectives. https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ajet/14-2_055.pdf
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Schlehlein, P. D. (2013). Pastoring Polygamists: Biblical Counsel For The African Church. 104.
Sider, R. J. (2015). Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Reprint edition). Thomas Nelson.
Smith, C. (2009). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Reprint edition). Oxford University Press.