Book Review – Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien. Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 217 pp. (Paperback)
I first want to thank Dr. Randy Richards (E. Randolph Richards), my former college professor, for sending me two free copies of his book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, coauthored with Brandon J. O’Brien, for this review and giveaway. This book blessed me and challenged me in my reading of Scripture. Therefore, I am excited to let you know about this book and to give one of you lucky readers your own copy. So let’s begin…
In this 217-page book, coauthors Richards and O’Brien seek to have a conversation with their Western readers, you and me, about what presuppositions they might bring to the Bible that would inform their interpretation. They call these presuppositions, “cultural blinders,” and use the metaphor of an iceberg to describe how some of these blinders are obvious, others not as obvious, and then those that are deep under the surface.
The purpose of this book, then, is to address nine common Western presuppositions “by which Western readers read – and even misread – Scripture,” so that as the readers become aware of their own presuppositions it will help them toward a more “faithful reading and application of the Bible.” Their primary goal, they write, “is to help us learn to read ourselves.” (See page 16.)
Richards and O’Brien also outline a couple of caveats in their Introduction that are important to keep in mind while reading this book. For one, they admit they are writing as “insiders,” as white, male, Americans. This is important to remember because some of these presuppositions might not apply to everyone who lives in the West (i.e. Canada or Western Europe) or everyone who lives in the United States (i.e. Latinos, Asians, or Blacks). They also admit to using generalizations and oversimplifications in this book due to lack of space and language. This is important to keep in mind while reading this book so that when you encounter it you will “give them the benefit of the doubt.”
The nine “cultural blinders” addressed in this book are: mores (or moral views of a particular group); race and ethnicity; language; individualism vs. collectivism; right/wrong vs. honor/shame; time; rules vs. relationships; virtue and vice; and self-centeredness. In these chapters, the authors not only demonstrate how these presuppositions are manifested in the Western culture but also how they might be antithetical to the worldview of the Bible. With the exception of perhaps a couple of examples, you will not find interpretations of certain passages of Scripture nor interpretive steps to use while reading the Bible. Rather the authors provide modern-day and historical examples to demonstrate how “biblical interpretation is a cross-cultural experience” (p. 22), and at the end of each chapter they provide questions to ponder and discuss. Richards and O’Brien conclude that they are “trying to help you become a certain kind of reader: the kind of reader who is increasingly aware of his or her cultural assumptions” (p. 212).
This book has the tendency to make you feel uncomfortable, and I believe the authors hope for this outcome. Consider the following quote on page 17, “To begin with, we can no longer pretend that a Western interpretation of the Bible is normative for all Christians everywhere.” Even though none of us might admit it, we like to think our interpretation of Scripture is the correct one, the best one or the only one. But what Richards and O’Brien do in this book is show that our interpretation/application isn’t necessarily the only biblical one and in fact many times it may be incorrect! They challenge the most personal things about us – things that make us particularly American or Western – and it is frankly uncomfortable. You might even feel somewhat defensive while reading, but if you put this aside you might be able to consider what they are saying is of value.
For me, the chapters on honor/shame vs. right/wrong and rules vs. relationships were the most meaningful and challenging. I appreciate that Richards and O’Brien are not afraid to talk about the “elephants in the room,” and I believe their frankness to talk about hard, difficult and sensitive interpretative issues is one aspect that makes this book a good one. One example of this is found at the bottom of page 33 in the chapter on mores. “[Western] Christians are tempted to believe that our mores originate from the Bible,” they write. They then give an example about drinking alcohol. Whether or not you change your interpretation regarding an issue such as alcohol, the authors give you good reasons to think more critically about whether your interpretation is universal or cultural.
One possible negative effect this book may have on a reader is that it might leave him/her discouraged, believing that one cannot interpret Scripture with Western eyes or that those in the East are necessarily better biblical interpreters. If you read the book carefully, especially the Introduction and Conclusion chapters, you will find this is not the belief of the authors. In fact they even suggest someone writing a book called, Misreading Scripture with Eastern Eyes! Keep in mind they are being somewhat provocative and critical to make a point within a short amount of space.
Quickly, I must mention a couple other things about this book. One, the authors had me laughing out loud. I am so glad they shared so many personal stories about cross-cultural (mis)communication. At times I felt like they were in the room with me sharing funny stories over coffee. Secondly, I finished the book in a week and half simply because it is compelling and easy to read. The authors have a gift of taking difficult issues and discussing them in a way that is easy to understand without dumbing down the material. It was very enjoyable.
Lastly, I recommend this book to be used in Bible studies, church small groups, introduction to biblical interpretation classes, and book clubs. The material alone would foster great discussion, but as an additional discussion aid the authors provide questions at the end of each chapter. I also recommend that pastors, church ministers, and Bible teachers read this book to help them with their preaching, teaching and interpreting of Scripture. I think one of the values of this book is to make us more humble interpreters, which would be an invaluable posture for all Bible teachers and leaders. Lastly I recommend this book for every American (and other Westerners) Christian who wants to become a better student of Scripture. For interpretation happens when the author (such as Luke or Moses) and the reader (you) meet in the text of the Bible. Therefore, as interpreters we need to be aware of what we bring with us to the text, and I think this book is a helpful tool to get us there.
Thank you all who entered in this giveaway. I enjoyed this book so much I wish I had more copies to give away! I also loved reading your comments, and I hope that you will put this book on your reading list.
So now to the winner. Congratulations Erin, #7, you are the winner!
Erin, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with you mailing address and I will put your book in the mail for you! Congratulations, and thanks again for entering.
Thanks to Dr. Richards, I’m doing a fun GIVEAWAY! Simply comment below to enter… and here’s what you need to know:
What do I win? One person will win one free copy of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.
What are the rules? You need to live in the United States in order to enter this giveaway.
How long does the giveaway go for? The giveaway begins today, Oct. 7, and ends at 12 a.m. on Oct. 21.
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