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 Three of a series.
“In fact, the entire issue of honor and shame over against right and wrong (innocence and guilt) is a bit of a mystery to us. As authors, we must confess that this chapter was one of the more challenging to write. English just doesn’t have good words to describe this system, and our cultural values run almost in the opposite direction.”
Having interacted with people who live in “shame” cultures, I can testify that understanding situations and relating to people in those cultures can be quite bewildering at times. Whereas I tend to look at things through the lens of right and wrong or good and bad, it has been hard at times to fathom the more relational perspective of friends and coworkers. I can recall many occasions, for example, where it was clear that someone we were working with in India was either giving us false information or not telling the whole truth for fear of losing face. It was not so much “the truth” that drove them to relate to us as they did, it was the cultural values of retaining honor and avoiding being shamed before their community and guests.
Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien discuss the very different perspectives that are found in other cultures who don’t share our individualistic and legalistic conceptions.
…our decisions to act rightly are not necessarily made with other people in mind — to please others, for example — but on the basis of an objective and largely individual sense of right and wrong.
…Things work differently in shame cultures. 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.
As a simple example from the Bible, they note how Paul considered himself “faultless” as a Pharisee within his community, even when he was persecuting Christians (Philippians 3:6).
In a more contemporary case, they tell about a region in Indonesia, Aceh, that was hard hit by the 2004 tsunami. An isolated area, the Achenese government at first welcomed Western help. However, after a few months, the government began to worry that they were losing face in the sight of their people by having to rely on outside assistance. Though they didn’t want the outsiders to leave, they ordered them out anyway, effective on a certain date. With the help of an Indonesian official, they were able to work out a way of getting the aid they needed while saving face. However, Americans were furious, thinking the people of Aceh ungrateful, which in their eyes was wrong.
The authors show in further illustrations that the Ancient Near East was, by and large, made up of honor/shame cultures rather than right/wrong cultures. The issue is not which is better or worse, for they both have strengths and weaknesses, and God can and does work in both kinds. The issue is that we may fail to understand what the Bible is saying if we don’t recognize that much of it is written from a point of view that is different than ours.
The OT story they analyze in these terms is the account of David, Bathsheba, Uriah, and Nathan, showing in scene after scene how David and others act not out of inner conscience but out of concerns about honor and shame. David only internalizes his sins and confesses them when confronted by the prophet Nathan with a story he considers shameful. And then the consequences God pronounced were of ongoing shame for David and his royal household.
This language is also reflected in the concern throughout Scripture for God’s glory and the honor of his name. And Jesus consistently appealed to matters of honor and shame in his teaching and ministry. In fact, it is clear that many of his public words and actions caused the religious leaders of Israel to lose face, thus inflaming their hatred and inciting murderous actions against him.
This chapter fits closely with the chapter on individualism vs. a more collective understanding of life. Broadly speaking, individualistic cultures tend to focus on standards of right and wrong, inner moral guidance, and personal consequences and rewards. More collective cultures operate under standards of honor and shame, relational considerations, and the consequences that fall upon the community for individual actions.
- How have you seen these distinctions in your reading of the Bible?
- Have you had any experiences relating to people from different cultures where these differences have emerged?
- What are we to make of these cultural differences in the way we conduct our lives as Christians?