Book Review: misreading scripture from western eyes

Biblical interpretation has a long and storied past. From ancient Judaism to modern-day Christianity, faithful believers of God have made honest and brave attempts to read, research, and understand the biblical text. This has led to wonderful insights and doctrinal conclusions that theologians have uncovered over the centuries. Beautiful theological creeds have paved the way for the global Church out of such interpretation. However, this has also led to poor interpretations that splintered faith-based communities and have contributed to varying religious factions and some heretical work. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, attempts to explain how western society can, and has, misinterpreted and misunderstood key biblical passages by eisegesis. This essay is a critique of that book in light of the subject of hermeneutics and its usefulness in the Christian communities in America. Since the book has a predilection toward pointing out western cultural themes and presuppositions, this essay will only positively or negatively analyze the book with western (American) thought and recommendation involved.

The author intends to show the readers that in most cases, Western thinking and culture are the lenses through which Westerners interpret everything. They advocate that this can be problematic if one is not aware that he/she is doing it. The theme of the book is well stated in its introduction: “Another way to say this is that all Bible reading is necessarily contextual. There is no purely objective biblical interpretation.”[1] The authors make a detailed case that cultural mores, western presuppositions, and modernist preunderstanding sometimes stand in the way of good hermeneutics. 

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is carved up into three varying parts. The analogy that the authors use is that of an iceberg. The metaphor is a good one and useful in understanding the emphasis given to each part. The first part, above the water, deals with cultural issues that are obvious to the common eye. The second part, below the surface, handles less obvious cultural issues that take more time and effort to illuminate. The final part, deep below the surface, points out difficulties with values and assumptions that are more philosophical and abstract in a theological sense and takes deep study and hard dedication to unpack.[2] Within the three parts, the authors tackle nine differences between western and non-western cultures that may impact how someone views scripture or interprets the biblical text. The following analysis will use the same model.

The book begins with an almost humorous look into how western societies tend to view the outer world around them. In most cases, it is just overlooked or not paid any attention to. They explain how mores work and what challenges that bring to biblical interpretation. It is a useful and poignant way of seeing how egocentric western culture can be concerning expressions that are accepted without any questions or examination. They point out the adherent contradictions in much of western mores that point to a dualistic worldview although not expressly admitting to one. The book points out contradictions some western cultures have with sex, money, and food. An exceptional noteworthy section is where the authors point to the absurdities of church fellowship i.e., what we wear, what we drive. This was a great opening of the book and smacks the reader in the face with noticeable customs and cultural differences in the world that would lead to misreading the scripture through a ridiculous self-serving lens. x

The second section of part one deals with ethnic, race, and social issues surrounding scripture and interpretation race relations may be involved more than westerners realized. Although well-intentioned, this section was the biggest stretch of the entire book. Most of this section was riddled with questionable misinterpretation. This was the weakest section of the entire book and could have used better exegesis in their conclusions. Their examples such and Mariam and Moses seem to be only a “may have” incident. Most of the conclusions they draw on seem to be eisegetical through a theological liberal lens where everything is a racial issue. However, the information on African history and Jewish ancient history and ethnicity is informative and helpful in understanding the biblical text. x

The third and final section of part one is the most useful in the problem of biblical interpretation, dealing with words. The authors do an outstanding job of pointing out how westerners misread the Bible by reading our context into the text. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard write: “Context is the whole of which some piece is a part. In terms of literature, context is the larger whole within which a specific text or passage is located.”[3] Western societies tend to ignore the fact that the original authors spoke and wrote in different languages, all of which are currently dead and only used in academia. They categorize three important assumptions that deal with languages such as sufficiency, equivalency, and clarity. The examples they use, such as the word chesed and its implications are excellent. Moreover, how they point out that the word Love, in Greek, had four different words. This cannot be understated in the modern age where westerners, especially Americans, have no real idea what biblical love truly is. x

In part two, the authors expose the individualist world of the west pitted against the collectivist cultures of the east and the biblical authors. It is here that Richards and O’Brien do an outstanding job at painting how potentially dangerous it can be to read scripture with western eyes. x Moreover, American exceptionalism and its emphasis on individual and individual achievement can guide the interpreter into viewing biblical narratives improperly. They portray a great milieu of the dichotomy the west has with eastern cultures that would find the western emphasis on  individualism as sinful.

The second section expounds on the perception of individualism and collectivism with the subject of shame and honor. This section was truly insightful in its expositions on different cultures and different historical events that were centered on eastern shame culture, we talk about the values of honor and shame. The authors do a great job at addressing the differences between honor and shame and how that can imply biblical interpretation. They do a fantastic mock Bible study of second Samuel eleven. They take this principle of honor and shame dissecting the story with fantastic conclusions that lead to a hermeneutic that fits. It is one of the greatest expositions of scripture in the book and should be read aloud in Bible studies throughout the west. It was conclusive, informative, and eye-opening to how westerners focus on sexual mores as the greatest value of this story.

The third section of part two is invaluable to biblical interpretation. Richards and O’Brien bring the issue of time seen through western eyes versus eastern idioms that are illuminating. Their Indonesian anecdotes on time and efficiency are great and even entertaining. They philosophically unpack the ills of and potential sins of how people almost worship time and relate it to the western worldview of how time dictates success. The greatest part of this section was the teaching on time in the New Testament and how this affects the biblical text. “The New Testament writers used two Greek terms— chronos and kairos—that we typically translate with the same English word: ‘time.’”[4] This can also be found in the Old Testament and both have spurred controversy in interpretation. In the last few decades, this debate about chronos versus kairos can be seen in hermeneutical conclusions of the creation event.[5] This could be the most useful portion of the book and should be credited as a “must read and review” for future Bible study sessions.

In part three the authors switch to a deep philosophical mode where values and interpretation intertwine. This last part could be used in philosophical theology classes where scripture, interpretation, and hermeneutical conclusion collide with western philosophical thought. Scripture Deep Below the Surface unpacks the ramification of misreading Scripture and its potential impact on the individual, on the Church local, and the Global Church.

The authors tackle tough topics such as the responsibilities that rules play in relationships and how that affects our interpretation of scripture. They unpack some cultural dichotomies amongst virtues and vices within western/eastern civilizations. They end with knowing God’s perspective as to what people take away from biblical interpretation. The authors point to the selfish and self-centered nature of western societies and how those ideologies seep into a biblical interpretation which leads readers into reading scripture about oneself in place of the author’s intent. This tends to lean toward man-centered worship in place of God-centered worship which is the main focus of hermeneutics. J. Scott Duvall writes about the author intent approach: “We will also miss out on knowing God in the way he desires. So we must follow the authorial intent approach to interpreting the Bible.”[6] Richards and O’Brien echo this sentiment in the final section and exhort readers to fight against a single-minded approach to reading scripture.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien is an informative and educational piece of work that will help demarcate biblical interpretation by westerners. The authors focused on the assumptions, worldviews, cultural and religious axioms that people tend to read into the scripture. Western readers tend to struggle with contextual perceptions of the biblical authors in light of the worldview they were living in. The book advocates that true objectivity is impossible but obtaining biblical truth is obtainable if enough care and research are given in interpretation. The book is extremely valuable to both the local church and the world of academia. The source should be a precursor to biblical interpretation and should be highly recommended to students, or laymen, who desire deep Bible study or theology. A biblical study should be hard and should be a sacrificial methodology in discerning God’s word, this is a great source for those who desire to do so. x

Bibliography

Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: a Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019.

Hagopian, David G., ed. The G3n3s1s Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation. Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001.

Klein, William Wade, Craig Leonard Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.

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.

footnotes:

[1] 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 Press, 2012), page not available. Overall formatting is good. When the page is not available on an E-book, give the URL to the detail on the page (-.5). See Lifeway help video for annotating with URL. Deduction taken on the grading page under Turabian formatting.   

[2] Richards, O’Brien, , page not available. Drop the title if the preceding citation is referencing the same source (-.5).

[3] William Wade Klein, Craig Leonard Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), p? or URL address. Overall formatting is good; page number or URL is necessary (-.5).

[4] Richards, O’Brien, Misreading Scriptures, page not available.

[5] For further research and information on the debate over a twenty-four-hour day and lone epochs of time days see David G. Hagopian, ed., The G3n3s1s Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001).

[6] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: a Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 194.

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