Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes I think will become my new recommendation for the place to start when thinking about how we read and understand scripture.
I have made a pretty concerted effort as a lay person to understand hermeneutics (the science and art of reading and understanding scripture) over the past half dozen years. Much of what I have read is oriented toward the academic, the theologian or the pastor. And I am glad I have read it. But books like that are not easy to recommend to an average reader that wants an overview, and doesn’t have a good background in theology, biblical languages or history or linguistics.
Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes is an introduction to cultural anthropology as much as it is an introduction to scripture. And this is really important. Some conservative Christians in their reaction against liberal cultural values also react against understanding different cultures and perspectives as ‘post-modern’. This often occurs not only in an attempt to uphold Christian values, but because some conservatives are also somewhat insular and have only been exposed to US American Culture.
Because of that lack of exposure, we have fights about bible translations but most of us don’t actually know another language or the basics of what it means to translate from one language to another. We have disagreements about what constitutes as sin, but we do not understand how activities within recent memory have shifted (within the church) from a status of ‘sinful’ to ‘personal freedom’ (think card playing, going to movies and drinking.)
The authors of Misreading Scripture have written an easy to read introduction to how we as Western Christians look at scripture (and culture more broadly) differently from those that are different from us (Eastern Christians today, Biblical era Christians, etc.)
There are nine different areas (each a chapter) divided into three sections. This is really just an introduction, but this would make a very good book to work through in a small group or a high school or college group.
Part one looks at the biggies of money, sex and food as illustrations of ways that we look differently at Mores. The second chapter looks at race and ethnicity (with a bit of geography). The third chapter looks very briefly at language and translation issues.
Part two explores collectivist and individualistic cultures, honor/shame and right/wrong cultures and time.
Part three focuses on rules and relationships, then virtue and vice and finally God’s will.
This is a fairly light book. I read all of it in two days. But it is not a light weight book. The subject matter is serious and handled well. But the tone is light, full of stories and illustrations, practical and rooted in the bible. It is also clear that Western is not wrong and Eastern is not inherently right. The issue instead is that we need to understand our own culture so we can see how scripture can speak to it. The authors quote the famous CS Lewis line about reading old books. But too often when we hear that line quoted, the point is missed. We don’t read old books because old books are better. We read old books because the authors of those old books had different cultures and assumptions from our own. The different ways those old books look at the world or at scripture or at culture help us to better understand our own time, culture and theology.
The problem with books like this is that we can become lost in the enormity of the task of reading scripture. We will never fully understand all of the nuances and cultural and linguistic issues. And so some people will simply say, there is no reason to read the bible for ourselves. But that is not the point of this book. The point is that scripture is important and should be read both individually and communally with our church. But we should not just read the surface, we should seek out the deeper meanings of scripture and see where we have become blind to the meaning of the text because we are reading the bible with underlying assumptions.
We all have those assumptions and this book makes a good start at showing the reader where some of those cultural reading have actually inverted the meaning of scripture. As a person that wants to take seriously scripture, not just read the surface words, I think books like this are essential.
If you are interested in learning more, I think this is the book to start with. Then NT Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, then Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So, then John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One (links are to earlier Bookwi.se Reviews). From there there are lots of directions to go. But the four books together will illustrate:
- how we need cultural and historic awareness,
- how we need to place scriptural authority not in the words on the page and our understanding of those words, but in God,
- how we need to rely on biblical scholarship
- how scripture is a big, diverse story of God working through people, events and time to accomplish his purposes
- and how we need to see the interpretation of scripture as tentative and not fixed.
For some this list will show that I am no longer Evangelical, but I believe at this point, with tools that I have been given by a variety of authors, and by reading scripture in communication with historic tradition and a community of faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I think I am investing much more weight in the power of scripture to change and guide than I ever have before.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Scribd ebook, Audible.com Audiobook, audiobook is discounted to $3.99 with the purchase of the kindle edition