E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien | Review by: Robert Letham
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012. 240 pp. $16.00.
Randolph Richards, dean of the School of Ministry and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and his former student, Brandon O’Brien, editor at large for Leadership Journal and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, together address the problem of cultural self-awareness in readers of Scripture. This is a common problem in reading ancient texts or interpreting the work of others. Richards brings to the task years of experience as a missionary in Indonesia, where cultural norms and mores are often radically different than in the West. The main thesis of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is that those living in Western societies are frequently blind to the cultural nuances those living in other cultures take for granted. As a result, Westerners may often miss the point of a biblical passage, whether narrative or didactic. In its tone and contents the book is addressed largely, though not necessarily exclusively, to a lay readership living in the United States. It’s intended to enable readers to understand themselves in their cultural differences as a prelude to approaching and reading the biblical text.
Richards and O’Brien identify nine areas where interpretive problems commonly arise. Some cultural differences are obvious, others lurk beneath the surface, while a third class is extremely difficult to detect and thus poses the greatest danger to the reader of Scripture. The point is that most of these differences go unsaid, being implicit rather than clearly expressed. The first group, explained in chapters one to three, consists of cultural mores, the copious scriptural references to race and ethnicity in Scripture—with the overtones and undertones conveyed to the original readers—and varying significance given to different literary genres. In the second group, Richards and O’Brien contrast the rampant individualism of American society with the corporate and collectivist cultures that prevail in the East. They devote a chapter to the honor-shame nature of the Oriental world in contrast to the dominance of individual conscience and guilt in the West (following Augustine). Indeed, there are radical differences between the two worlds. In the final section, attention turns to the prominence of rules in the West vis-à-vis relationships in the East, to the concepts of virtue and vice, and to a Western obsession with individual, personal relevance that assumes Scripture was written directly to and for me.
There is much in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes that will be of value to its intended readership, and its main purpose is both necessary and laudable. If it succeeds in convincing persons that, in order to grasp what Scripture is saying to our generation, we must first uncover what it said to its original readers, then it will have achieved a great gain. Moreover, there are a number of insights that make a valuable contribution. The chapter on race and ethnicity is a case in point; the divisions in Corinth may have arisen, it is proposed, from these factors, with Alexandrian Jews looking to Apollos, Aramaic speakers lining up behind Cephas (note: not Peter!), and others being ethnic Corinthians. Richards and O’Brien’s treatment of individualism is also likely to be of value in a culture to which the corporate categories of both the Old and New Testaments are alien. Talk of sin and salvation as a matter of being in Adam or in Christ doesn’t drip readily off American preachers’ lips, nor does the household nature of covenantal administration fit the rugged individualism of the frontier.
At the same time, however, there are a number of significant weaknesses. I shall pinpoint four main areas.
First, the bulk of the book’s examples are based on Richards’ experience in Indonesia; however, Indonesia is not Israel in biblical times. Moreover, much of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is taken up with the idea of cultural distinctiveness as such. This is a necessary part of the hermeneutical process, but it’s not immediately relevant to the title of the book. As examples of cultural difference, Richards’ recollections of his Indonesian experiences serve to effectively open the question of cultural difference between the world of the Bible and that of the modern West. Nevertheless, the book contains so many that at times it seems more a manual for an intending missionary in Indonesia.
Second, there are a number of lexicographical assertions that are at best highly questionable. In chapter six, the authors draw a fine distinction between words for time such as chronos (which they consider to represent clock time) and kairos (referring to the appropriateness or fittingness of events). Again, we’re told that in the Bible there are four kinds of love, agape love being distinctive. Such assertions were often made in the past but have been undermined by the work of scholars such as James Barr. Perhaps it is significant that Barr isn’t mentioned. That this is no isolated mistake is made clear by the claim that a culture’s thought patterns are reflected in its lexical stock (138-145), a key point also challenged by Barr.
Third, there appears to be a theological deficit. The lack of a coherent covenantal framework leads to a certain relativizing of the law of God, seen in a polarity between law and relationships, with Scripture focusing on the latter rather than the former. This, however, is a false conflict. Adam’s disobedience to the law of God was simultaneously a breach of his covenantal relation to him, a breach demonstrated by his violation of the law God had given. This unfortunate dichotomy repeats itself in a similar polarity between the individual and the collective. Certainly, the West has lost its grasp of the corporate element so vital in understanding Scripture. Nevertheless, the biblical revelation of the corporate—Israel, the church, in Christ—is where the individual flourishes, and non-Western cultures where the individual is submerged by the group are no nearer to biblical balance than is the West.
Finally, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is influenced by Krister Stendahl’s thesis on the introspective conscience of the West, influenced (so the story goes) by Augustine. In contrast, Richards and O’Brien argue that the biblical authors had no problems with guilty consciences. David had no pangs of guilt about having Uriah effectively eliminated due to his adultery. His actions were culturally acceptable for a king. It was only when confronted by Nathan the prophet that he was brought to realize the gravity of his sin. Perhaps the authors should read carefully Psalm 32 and kindred passages. Since, as seems probable, the psalms were widely used in Israel’s liturgy, it would appear the effects of suppressed and unconfessed sin aren't peculiar to the post-Augustinian Western world at all.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is useful if used wisely by knowledgeable readers.
Robert Letham is a lecturer in systematic and historical theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology in Bridgend, Wales.