Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien
IVP Books (2012)
Part Two of a series.
One major impediment Westerners have in reading the Bible and practicing the Christian faith is our individualistic perspective. For the Bible was written in a much more collectivist culture and it reflects that orientation.
My (Randy’s) anthropology professor worked in a remote tribal area for years. His village friends gave him a nickname that meant, “Man who needs no one.” This would be a positive American trait, but they were not intending to compliment him.”
In this age of accessible transportation, many have traveled for business or pleasure, or on mission trips that have exposed them to different cultures. It is common for folks to express how eye-opening such experiences can be. I would affirm that, but found it even more of an epiphany when I hosted a friend from India here in the States. I remember one entire day of driving him around our city to visit with various people. It was just the two of us riding in the car for hours, interspersed with short meetings, usually with individuals in office buildings. After a particularly long stretch of driving I asked my friend, “Well, what do you think of the U.S.?” In essence he replied, “It’s ok for a visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.”
It struck me immediately that he was feeling isolated and lonely here. Thinking back to my experiences with him in India, I realized that, in his natural setting, he was rarely alone or in a setting that was not filled with crowds of people. His clinic is attached to his home, so he never really leaves his work or his patients. His mother and several other extended family members live with him, and there are neighbors and friends and merchants and hired workers in and out of his home all day. The streets of the city where he lives are constantly crowded with people, animals, and every manner of vehicle. If he wants some “me” time, he has to intentionally seek solitude (which, amazingly to me, he seems to need far less often that someone like myself) by leaving town for awhile.
As societies become more technologically sophisticated they inevitably become more individualistic. This leads to the “losing my religion” phenomenon we have been talking about in recent days, for Christianity is not an individualistic faith. And as the authors say, “It is difficult to present the values of a collectivist culture in a positive light to Western hearers.” What is a virtue in one society is often considered a vice in the other. This is extremely important to grasp, for it means that the deep presuppositions and outlooks that form us as individualistic people in the contemporary world do not reflect the cultural ethos represented in Scripture.
We do not, cannot read the Bible accurately until we face up to these blinders.
The authors show how we have westernized and individualized the Christmas story into a tale of a small nuclear family who traveled alone and overcame personal challenges to bring the Christ-child into the world. In reality, it likely happened in the context of a clan of relatives: “The birth of Jesus was no solitary event witnessed only by the doting parents in the quiet of a cattle fold. It was likely a noisy, bustling event attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.”
We imagine Paul in terms of romanticism’s ideal: the lone writer, agonizing over his words and pouring out his heart under God’s inspiration to express profound spiritual ideals. However, “Paul would not have locked himself away in some private room to write. …He more likely would have sat in a public place: the breezy, well-lit atrium of a prosperous home like Lydia’s or in an upstairs balconied apartment. Family and friends walking by would have stopped to listen [as he dictated out loud to his secretary] (ancients read out loud) and to offer advice (it shows you care).”
We routinely ignore the NT testimony to the fact that Paul had co-authors and that he always functioned as part of a team when he was able to do so. Many of the NT epistles were probably collaborative efforts as Paul and his partners discussed the needs of the congregations they were addressing and how to deal with them.
Richards and O’Brien also discuss the radically different perspective that collectivist cultures have about conversion and religious faith. “We are used to our decisions, and thus our conversion, being personal and private affairs.” However, the NT records household conversions. And more collective societies still have this perspective. They cite Duane Elmer, a missionary who testified:
…when he shared Christ with Asian adults he “was constantly told that they could not make a decision to follow Christ without asking a parent, uncle, aunt or all three.” At first he thought this was an evasive maneuver, a ruse to avoid making the hard decision of faith. Over time he realized that this is simply how collectivist cultures work. People “do not make major decisions without talking it over with the proper authority figures in their extended family.” This is hard for us Westerners to understand. We believe they are simply doing what the authority figure(s) said and not making decisions for themselves. My (Randy’s) Asian friend speaks of his conversion this way: “My father is wiser than I am. If he says Jesus is better, then I know Jesus is better.” My friend has a faith as strong and rooted as mine. His certitude about Jesus came a different way than mine, but it as firm.
One of the most common ways we misread the Bible through Western, individualistic eyes involves our failure to understand the plural pronouns in the NT. In English, we use the word “you” in both singular and plural contexts. Therefore, we regularly misread teachings and instructions which are directed to entire congregations as being spoken to “me” as an individual.
In my view, this is one of the great issues in Biblical interpretation and its application to the Christian faith — How do we translate the words of Scripture that reflect a way of life much different than we know in our own individualistic culture and apply them to our lives and churches today?