Reading the Bible without Cultural Near-Sightedness

3782“Can you imagine a Jesus without all his teeth?” That’s one of the many questions that E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien ask in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.

In modern America, the authors point out, we tend to associate missing teeth with lack of intelligence. But what would your smile look like without the luxury of modern and available dentistry? Would you have a full mouth of straight pearly whites? Did Jesus have all his teeth intact? The authors write, “It seems like heresy to suggest otherwise.” But for much of the world, a lack of teeth would be irrelevant—if not expected—in a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.

Richards (a former missionary to Indonesia) and O’Brien’s goal in Misreading Scripture is to get us to rethink our assumptions about what we read in the Bible. They’re not saying that non-Westerners can understand the Bible better, just that we all come to the text with our own cultural baggage that we need to lay down. (They offer that someone else could easily write Misreading Scripture with Eastern Eyes.)

The authors admit that they’ve had to oversimplify the topic, as there is way too much to cover in one book. But, they write, their purpose is to “unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a crosscultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read.”

For instance, they open the book with the example of the hot, cold, and lukewarm waters of the church in Laodicea:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15,16 NIV)

Our assumptions lead us to think that hot means “on fire” with faith, while cold means that faith is absent. This reading says that God would rather us be non believing than to have a weak faith. But when O’Brien traveled to the site of Laodicea, he learned that nearby were the hot springs of Hierapolis and the cold springs of Colossae. Laodicea didn’t have any springs, so aqueducts brought water in. Both kinds of water, hot and cold, would have been welcome and refreshing to the people of Laodicea, but by the time the water arrived, it was only lukewarm. New insights bring new perspectives.

The story of David and Bathsheba gives another opportunity for us to see an “Eastern” viewpoint. The authors’ thought-provoking analysis suggests that David’s actions were motivated more by honor and shame than by feelings of guilt. In fact, they show how not only the king’s decisions, but also those of Bathsheba and Uriah, exemplify a culture where individual convictions of right and wrong are trumped by the weight of societal expectations.

Other topics covered in Misreading Scripture are the cultural differences of Individualism and Collectivism, Time, Rules and Relationships, Virtue and Vice, and Finding the Center of God’s Will. In the chapter covering this last subject, Richards and O’Brien discuss the common Western practice of a reader applying scriptures to himself, while non-Western readers—as with the Jews of the Old Testament—are more likely to apply it to the entire group. This is compounded, as the authors point out earlier in their book, by the lack of a plural you in the English language.

While I taught the Bible in Asia, it was a constant challenge to set aside my American presuppositions and allow my non-American friends to understand the Bible on their own terms. Instead, I was tempted to share my personal and cultural footnotes before they could be convicted of a “misguided” interpretation. This was especially dangerous when I found myself, as the authors call it, “arguing [them] to a lower standard.”

As I read through Misreading Scriptures, I wasn’t always convinced of the authors’ conclusions, but I was consistently “unsettled” enough to rethink my assumptions. And when I question those things that I take for granted, it makes me a better teacher and student. When I acknowledge my cultural biases, I am then better able to understand what the Bible says and less hindered by what I’m sure it should be saying.

(E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, IVP, 2012)


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