Review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien

Awhile back a fake news story made the rounds that went something like this:

A woman came home to find her husband in the kitchen, shaking frantically with what looked like a wire running from his waist towards the electric kettle. Intending to jolt him away from the deadly current she whacked him with a handy plank of wood by the back door, breaking his arm in two places. Until that moment he had been happily listening to his iPod.

Stories like this are believable because we have all had the experience of things turning out quite differently than how we first perceived them. According to E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien that same phenomena often plagues our bible study. They believe that “some of the habits that Western readers bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see quite naturally”. (15)

This claim is not novel. Every book on biblical interpretation, worth any mention at all, will tell you that we must always be aware of our presuppositions. Richards and O’Brien have written a book, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, to expand upon this thought and to “offer readers an opportunity to identify and address our cultural blinders”. (15)

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section the authors look at three cultural issues that are obvious and above the surface: mores, race and ethnicity, and language. The next section looks just below the surface at the not so obvious western presuppositions: individualism and collectivism, honor/shame and right/wrong, and time. In the final section the authors probe the depths and look deep below the surface at presuppositions that most Westerners will not even recognize: rules and relationships, virtue and vice, and finding the center of God’s will.

O’Brien and Richards both have experience in cross-cultural missions. Their experience helped them to see the Bible with a new set of eyes. Each chapter ends with a few pointers from the authors on how to cultivate more cultural sensitivity in our Bible reading. Their goal is not to give a methodology or to give us the right process for reading the Bible; as “methodologies are the products of culture” as well. Their goal is to offer advice instead of a checklist.

My Take with a Concern

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Even though I disagree with a few of their suggested interpretations I now find myself reading Scripture with more informed eyes. If nothing else this book has served to raise a red flag in my mind every time I think I have Scripture mastered. It reminds me to pause and consider whether my interpretation might be solely cultural.

Another thing that I appreciate about this book is that the authors are evangelicals. I have read books like this in the past that exalted presuppositions to such a spot that the reader was wondering if there was even such a thing as truth left. Truth is knowable. I further appreciate that the authors acknowledge that a Western reading of a text may not be wrong simply because it is Western, nor is one correct because it is Eastern.

There are a few statements in the book that left me scratching my head. In particular I had a difficult time with their chapter on honor/shame and their chapter on rules and relationships. I agree with their overarching point; that the world of the Bible is more concerned with honor/shame than right/wrong. But after reading that chapter I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this “new set of eyes” has caused them to make the pendulum swing too far the other way.

In the chapter on rules and relationships the authors seem to take a subtle shot at forensic justification. They acknowledge that “there is nothing wrong with the doctrine” but fear that it “casts our connection to God in terms of rules, not relationship”. (173) They go on to give the example of Paul who “doesn’t seem to address the theology” of the Corinthians but instead the “status of their relationship”. In my opinion they are creating a false dichotomy here.

I disagree that Paul does not “seem to address [the Corinthian] theology”.

That seems to be precisely the point that he is making. Their relational issues are theological problems. Yes, Paul makes relational appeals. But he does so while teaching a robust theology centered on the foolish gospel. Richards and O’Brien ask “does relationship ever trump theology” (173). The answer to that question seems to be “what theology” are we talking about? It was “theology” that caused John to say, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [theology], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting”. Rules and relationships aren’t contrary enemies. They are friends reconciled on the cross of Christ. Let’s not separate what God has joined together.

Having said that, this book will undoubtedly be one of my top 12 books of 2012. It has been a refreshing read. Apart from a few caveats I would recommend this book to anyone. I think it would strengthen their Bible reading. Some books like this could foster doubt in the novice Bible reader. Richards and O’Brien, thankfully, write in such a way to actually add confidence to the Word of God.

Should You Buy It?

I recommend it. Every serious Bible student would benefit from reading this book. Pastors ought to consider it’s claims as well. I believe such a book would greatly aid in sermon preparation. If nothing else perhaps it will humble us. There are questions to ponder at the end of each chapter which would make this an interesting book to read in a community of believers, perhaps while reading through a book of Scripture.

You can purchase it at Amazon for under $10.

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