Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien
IVP Books (2012)
This is part one of a series of discussion-starters from this fine book.
* * *
“That is a good horse,” said the man as he watched it pull the farmer’s plow with strength.
“That is a good horse,” said the girl at the circus as she watched it do a series of amazing tricks.
“That is a good horse,” said the guide as he pointed the novice rider to one that he recommended for the trail ride.
“That is a good horse,” said the rodeo rider as he picked himself up and brushed himself off after having been thrown to the ground.
“That is a good horse,” said the bettor as he went to pick up his winnings after the filly he chose won the race.
“That is a good horse,” said the owner of the horse farm as she walked up to the prospective buyer who was purchasing a special gift for his daughter.
“That is a good horse,” said the guest at the table of his Kyrgyz hosts who had just finished the meal he had been served.
Five words. The same five words. And yet, five words that convey entirely different meanings because they are spoken in five different contexts and cultures.
Is the horse good because it is a dependable worker? Is the horse good because it is entertaining, having been trained to do unhorse-like things? Is the horse good because it is gentle with new riders? Is the horse good because it provides a top challenge for a skilled rodeo rider? Is the horse good because it runs fast? Is the horse good because it would be a suitable gift? Or is it good because it tastes good?
Is it a good farm horse? circus horse? trail-riding horse? rodeo horse? racehorse? pet? meal?
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien remind us that reading is not as simple as we imagine, and that reading a book like the Bible is an even more complex task.
We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite.
…Another way to say this is that all Bible reading is necessarily contextual. There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. This is not postmodern relativism. We believe truth is truth. But there’s no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts.
One of my favorite examples the authors give involves the familiar story of the “Prodigal Son.” They cite a professor who did an experiment in reading this parable from Luke 15. He had students in his small seminary class read it and then retell the story to a partner. Not one of the student mentioned the “famine” in Luke 15:14 which precipitated the son’s return home. Finding this omission intriguing, he repeated the experiment in a group of one hundred people. Only six mentioned the famine. All of the participants were from the United States.
On another occasion the professor had the chance to repeat the experiment with a group of fifty students in St. Petersburg, Russia. Forty-two out of fifty mentioned the famine! The authors point out that Russians had experienced several famines in their recent history. It was a part of their life and something with which they were familiar, whereas those from the United States had no such background.
Americans tend to treat the mention of the famine as an unnecessary plot device. Sure, we think the famine makes matters worse for the young son. He’s already penniless, and now there’s no food to buy even if he did have the money. But he has already committed his sin, so it goes without being said that the main issue in the story is his wastefulness, not the famine.
…Christians in other parts of the world understand the story differently. In cultures more familiar with famine, like Russia, readers consider the boy’s spending less important than the famine. The application of the story has less to do with willful rebellion and more to do with God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from hopeless situations. The boy’s problem is not that he is wasteful but that he is lost.
The authors’ point is not that one of these interpretations is “right” and the other “wrong.” Rather, they only want to suggest that we read the Bible out of our cultural context. We can’t help but do so. We need to be aware of this and do all we can to factor in our cultural blinders when we advance our interpretive conclusions.
However, there is a problem according to Richards and O’Brien — the most powerful cultural values that affect us are those of which we are least aware. It’s like an iceberg. We are able to identify only some of our presuppositions and conscious assumptions. However most of these powerful, shaping influences are below the surface, out of our sight. “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said,” claim the authors. We are fish that take little notice of the water in which we live. When we read the Bible, we tend to fill in any “gaps” of understanding with pieces from our own cultural perspectives — subconsciously.
The horse that you see may be a horse of a different color to me. And neither of us may really understand why.