[Editor’s Note: D. J. Baber is a student in the MAGL program at Western Seminary. As a field-tested missionary, he provides much insight into the claims and propositions of the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Brandon O’brien and Randy Richards.]
“…the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said”, write Richards and O’Brien’s in their book “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes”.[i] The authors labor diligently, not so much to bridge the cultural gap so that the Scripture is perfectly understood, but rather to attempt to expose the cultural blind-spots of the modern, rational, individualistic, (and you guessed it) Western reader. As someone that has lived in SE Asia for the last ten years, I can resonate at a very personal level when the authors write: “In whatever place and whatever age people read the Bible, we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading.”[ii] We all suffer from the challenges of historical particularity.
Bridging the Chasm between Hermeneutics and Missiology
This books is a primer for those who are unacquainted with the complexities of cross-cultural communication. It is a well-articulated attempt to bridge the chasm between the subject of hermeneutics and missiology. Indeed, the book is concluded with the admission that even the idea to write such a book stems from the western drive to examine, evaluate and synthesize a particular subject.
I found the author’s referencing to the Western “famine forgetters” to be particularly interesting.[iii] As someone who has never encountered a famine, I can surely resonate with this bias. The closest equivalent I could fathom would be the American Great Depression of two generations ago, which is hardly a firm memory in my parents or grandparents’ minds. While my maternal grandparents were wheat-farmers, they worked the ground using modern tractor technology, and never suffered what would be categorized as a famine. Few, if any, ever starve to death in America.
The authors helped me to see the majority-world perspective on money and material goods as a limited resource. I found this a striking contrast to the reality that often majority-world cultures see time as an unlimited resource.[iv]
Trying to “Read the Air” of Scripture
While I agree with much of what they write, I did find some of their confidant assertions to be forced. There are some serious challenges when we attempt to properly “read the air” of Scripture. If we are honest, sometimes we simply don’t know what exactly “goes without being said” because God’s word is, well…words. We are inevitably going to fill in meaning, and sometimes we’re still just making educated (dare I say Western?) guesses, particularly when considering the significant historical distance. There can easily be an excluded middle when it comes to making judgment calls on meaning of a text. Language and culture have always been understood by interpreters as inextricably connected, however there are reasonable limits (and room for further research) for what can be confidently asserted by modern readers. This is why the study of ancient Mid-Eastern history is a very valuable endeavor.
While emphasizing the original cultural context of the Text, I feel that the authors do nearly as much good (if not more) in helping modern readers consider their own cultural setting and worldview than giving new insights to the biblical setting. Their observations, for example, of our own current mores regarding sexuality, namely, that singleness is somehow deviant and that marriage is always preferential in the life of a Christian leader. Likewise, the concept of modesty as related both to sex appeal and to a flaunting of wealth is a helpful corrective in our age of material abundance.
Regarding race, I didn’t find the argument that the divisions in Corinth (over following leaders such as Alexander or Cephas) as primarily a culturally driven to be convincing. While surely cultural divisions may have had an effect on how these leaders were revered, I don’t believe that we can confidently assert that this was the root. However, the authors do make some good observations about how the rich cultural diversity (and the accompanying cultural biases) are evident throughout the Scripture. The reflection questions at the end of this section were helpful for me, even as a cross-cultural servant, I yet have prejudice that needs to be crucified in my flesh.[v]
Regarding Honor and Shame
I found this paragraph to be helpful in defining the concept of shame and honor for a majority of the world:
In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family. In fact, one should not regret actions that, in the words of Dayan and Pitamber, “have been approved by those considered significant. When a person performs any act in the interest of the community, he is not concerned about the wrongness or rightness of the acts.”[vi]
For their example of this concept, they highlighted the encounter of David with Bathsheba. I personally disagree with a fair amount of their supposed cultural insights on this biblical narrative. I do not believe, for example, that Bathsheba is somehow culpable taking a bath in the view of the palace. Nor does the text imply that David had no sense of inward guilt before Yahweh before he is confronted by the prophet Nathan.[vii]
Client/Patron System and the Greco-Roman Concept of Grace/Faith
In Chapter seven, the authors propose that the model that Paul refers to when considering the concept of grace and faith:
Because it was impossible to escape the patronage system, Paul worked within it, even in his explanation of the Christian message of salvation. Patronage had its own vocabulary. Words we usually consider particularly Christian terms—grace and faith—were common parlance before Paul commandeered them. The undeserved gifts of assistance the patron offered were commonly called charis (“grace” and “gift”). The loyalty the client offered the patron in response was called pistis (“faith” and “faithfulness”). Roman philosophers noted that when one received a god’s favor (charis), one should respond with love, joy and hope. When Paul sought to explain the Christian’s new relationship with God, then, one of the ways he did so was in terms of the ancient system of patronage—something everyone understood. In other words, it went without being said that relationship is the premier and determinative aspect of charis, grace.[viii]
While I find this idea compelling, I’m not sure that the mere vocabulary is enough to prove the point, as the semantic range could allow for other interpretations. What kind of grace the pagan god’s offer? What kind of loyalty was expected? If patronage is a valid model for faithfulness to Yahweh, how has the modern societal structure in the West hindered proper interpretation?
Overall, I would recommend a person read this book, simply as a tool to better understand Western worldview blind spots. The book is not exhaustive, but it is a good starting place for the conversation.
[i] Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Print. Page 12
[ii] Ibid. Introduction, Page 14
[iii] Ibid. Introduction, Page 14
[iv] Ibid. Chapter 1, Page 41
[v] Ibid. Chapter 2, Page 66
[vi] Ibid. Chapter 5, Page 116
[vii] Ibid. Chapter 5, Page 122
[viii] Ibid. Chapter 7, Page 165