Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes | Critical Thoughts & Notes

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. InterVarsity Press, 2012. [Logos Edition.] (225 pages)


This is an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with the basics of interpretation. I appreciate the authors’ study, experience, and their personal admission of their own biases/lenses by which they read and even write this book. This is a really helpful and accessible guide to entering into another world by exposing one’s own cultural context, and those who embrace this new way of thinking will have a far greater depth of understanding of the world, in addition to the Bible.

There were a few places that I felt they misstepped, and even contradicted their own theses. Those notes are highlighted below in bold and blue.


Introduction: Coming to Terms with Our Cultural Blinders

In whatever place and whatever age people read the Bible, we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading. (11)

…all Bible reading is necessarily contextual. (12)

Another way to say this is that the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. It is very hard to know what goes without being said in another culture. But often we are not even aware of what goes without being said in our own culture. This is why misunderstanding and misinterpretation happen. When a passage of Scripture appears to leave out a piece of the puzzle because something went without being said, we instinctively fill in the gap with a piece from our own culture—usually a piece that goes without being said. When we miss what went without being said for them and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture. (12-13)

[via: This reminds me of the axiom, “Those who do not study philosophy are the most bound by their philosophies.”]

Our goal is to raise this question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook a famine, what else do we fail to notice? (15)

We hope that Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes will offer a positive corrective by suggesting that there is a discernible pattern by which Western readers read—and even misread—Scripture. Becoming aware of our cultural assumptions and how they influence our reading of Scripture are important first steps beyond the paralysis of self-doubt and toward a faithful reading and application of the Bible. (16)

In short, while this is a book about biblical interpretation, our primary goal is to help us learn to read ourselves. (16)

If our cultural blind spots keep us from reading the Bible correctly, then they can also keep us from applying the Bible correctly. If we want to follow Jesus faithfully and help others do the same, we need to do all we can to allow the Scriptures to speak to us on their own terms. (17)

Richards, E. R., & O’Brien, B. J. (2012). Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (p. 17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

PART ONE: Above the Surface

Mores are the social conventions that dictate which behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate. (26)

1. Serving Two Masters: Mores

Our hierarchy of what behaviors are better or worse than others is passed down to us culturally and unconsciously. (34)

If Thomas (and much of early Christian tradition) overemphasized the significance of celibacy, it should likewise be clear from this passage that it is possible to overemphasize the priority of marriage. (38-39)

John Stott, quoted above, and Catholic writer and minister Henri Nouwen are just two examples of celibate Christian singles who dedicated their lives to the service of Christ and his kingdom. (40)

[via: Nouwen was gay, a note for additional context.]

In Timothy’s church in Ephesus, some women were dressing inappropriately. Again we might assume Paul is concerned about sexual modesty. Contextually, however, a case can be made that Paul meant, “Women should dress economically modestly” so as not to flaunt their wealth. The remainder of 1 Timothy 2:9 reads, “with decency and propriety … not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Paul mentions a triad of trouble (anger, quarreling/disputes and economics) for women here in 1 Timothy 2:8–9. (43)

Where two mores—sex and money—collide, we see which is more important to us. And when we project our own cultural mores onto the original audience of the Bible, we may fail to apply the Bible correctly in our own lives. It is certainly important for men and women alike to arrive for worship in attire that is sexually modest. But we seem to have no trouble turning sacred spaces into Christian country clubs. We see no dangers in the human tendency to assert our status in the way we dress. (43-44)

Start paying attention to your instinctive interpretations as you read biblical passages that have to do with values, in order to uncover which parts may be connected with cultural mores. To do that, take the time to complete these sentences: (1) Clearly, this passage is saying (or not saying) —— is right/wrong. (2) Is (that issue) really what is condemned? (3) Am I adding/removing some elements? The way you answer these questions can help you uncover what mores you take for granted. (48)

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.… Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. – C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), pp. 4–5.

2. The Bible in Color: Race and Ethnicity

The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers. It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. That makes sense of the tone of the passage. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they whined. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2). In other words: Moses is not the only prophet here. Who does he think he is? (61)

It is possible, though, that the divisions among the churches in Corinth were not theological. We may be failing to note ethnic markers that Paul sprinkled all over the text. Apollos was noted as an Alexandrian (Egyptian) Jew (Acts 18:24). They had their own reputation. Paul notes that Peter is called by his Aramaic name, Cephas, suggesting the group that followed him spoke Aramaic and were thus Palestinian Jews. Paul’s church had Diaspora Jews but also many ethnic Corinthians, who were quite proud of their status as residents of a Roman colony and who enjoyed using Latin. This may explain why Paul doesn’t address any theological differences. There weren’t any. The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians. (66)

3. Just Words? Language

But language is much more than words. As we have argued in these first chapters, the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. (70)

While it is easy to tell that you are hearing or reading a foreign language, what is not at all obvious is how our language, and our understanding of how language works, affects everything else we think and do. Few of us ever reflect on the mechanics of our native languages or the values and patterns that lie beneath them. These things reside further down the iceberg, under the water. So we are unlikely to recognize what it is about our own language that goes without being said. (71-72)

It is important for us to remember that when we read the Bible in our native language, mostly what has been changed is the words. Behind the words, now in a language we understand, remains that complex structure of cultural values, assumptions and habits of mind that does not translate easily, if at all. If we fail to recognize this—and we very often do—we risk misreading the Bible by reading foreign assumptions into it. Like Procrustes of Greek mythology, who shortened or stretched his guests to fit his bed, our unconscious assumptions about language encourage us to reshape the biblical narrative to fit our framework. (72)

To state our first point simply: Western readers typically believe that if something is important, then we’ll have a word for it. And the more important something is in our culture, the more likely we are to develop specialized language to describe it. (72)

Our cultural value for privacy is strictly a Western value; it is not derived from the Bible. This is not to say that privacy is wrong, just that it is a neutral value. But when we impose it on the text, we can come away with unbiblical interpretations.| What it says is not always what it means. (79)

English is a subject-verb language; it is actor- and action-oriented. We prefer sentences with a clear subject and a clear predicate, and we like it best when the verb is in the active voice. (80)

The whole is more than the sum of the parts. The meanings of words change when you combine them. We know this is true on a basic level. We can define the words up and with. So we can figure out a sentence like, “Put this book up with the others.” We also know that put up with can have a completely different meaning: for example, why we put up with English being so complex is a mystery to us! We instinctively adjust to these flexible meanings in our own language. But when we approach other languages, we tend to look for the literal, dictionary definitions of the words in question. (81)

…when it comes to formal dialogue, or talking about things we consider important (God, for example), English speakers tend to privilege clear, propositional language over colorful, metaphorical language. That concrete, propositional language is better than ambiguous, metaphorical language is just one more thing about language that goes without being said in the West. | So when it comes to communicating the truth, Westerners drift more toward propositions than to artistic expression. Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors, we tend to distill propositions out of them. (84)

Once you start noticing the connections between metaphors, you start to see them everywhere. (87)

Classical liberal theologians of the nineteenth century argued that Jesus never claimed to be divine. They missed the crucial point that Jesus made important truth claims—including being God incarnate—through his use of metaphorical language. (87)

There is no real substitute for becoming familiar with the Bible’s original languages. But that doesn’t mean you can’t become sensitive to the difference language makes in the meantime. (88)

PART TWO: Just Below the Surface

4. Captain of My Soul: Individualism and Collectivism

The Japanese never live their lives as individuals. We European missionaries were not aware of that fact. Suppose we have a single Japanese here. We try to convert him. But there was never a single individual we could call “him” in Japan. He has a village behind him. A family. And more. There are also his dead parents and ancestors. That village, that family, those parents and ancestors are bound to him tightly, as though they were living beings. That is why he is not an isolated human being. He is an aggregate who must shoulder the burden of village, family, parents, ancestors.… When the first missionary to Japan, Francisco Xavier, began his labours in the southern provinces, this was the most formidable obstacle he encountered. The Japanese said, “I believe the Christian teachings are good. But I would be betraying my ancestors if I went to a Paradise where they cannot dwell. – Shusaku Endo, The Samurai, trans. Van C. Gessel (New York: New Directions Books, 1982), pp. 164–165.

Roman citizens were required to have a given name (praenomen), a clan/ancestral name (nomen) and a family/tribe name (cognomen). (99)

It is difficult to present the values of a collectivist culture in a positive light to Western hearers. We as your authors often struggle to explain a collectivist worldview without sounding critical. In Western cultures, individual choice is to be protected at all cost. Communities that do not protect it are oppressive; individuals who will not practice it are weak-minded. Conformity, a virtue in a collectivist culture, is a vice in ours. Conforming is a sign of immaturity, a failure to realize your full potential, an inability to “leave the nest” or “cut the cord.” Of course, it is equally difficult to put a positive spin on individualist virtues, such as self-reliance, in a collectivist culture. Non-Westerners often consider collectivism one of their finest traits. Such an individualist in the East is described as someone who “doesn’t get along” or “breaks harmony” or “seeks his own glory” or “is self-important.” Obviously, we prefer the idea that we are “self-reliant.” (99-100)

Six of Paul’s letters indicate they were written with a coauthor, yet we traditionally ignore the other authors (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1–2; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). (102)

Even if we notice the coauthor in the letter’s greeting at all (Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians and Timothy in 2 Corinthians, for example), we are likely to assume that they were passive participants. Surely Paul is the creative and theological genius behind the letters, we think: the single, solitary, individual source of the letter’s content. Doubtful. It is more likely that the letters were composed with the coauthors actively contributing. (102)

But we can miss this, because a flaw in the English language works together with our love for individualism. In English, you can be both singular and plural. That is, we can’t differentiate formally between you (singular) and you (plural). Most languages don’t endure this ambiguity. And deep down, we don’t like to either. That’s why English speakers in different regions come up with colloquial terms to differentiate between the two: y’all, you’ns, you guys, you lot, youse (Scotland), yous (Liverpool) and even yous guys (parts of New York). Biblical Greek could differentiate between you singular and you plural. But we miss this in our English translations. (108)

Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else. – Jessie Kunhardt, “Anne Rice: I Quit Being a Christian,” The Huffington Post, accessed May 15, 2012 <www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/29/anne-rice-i-quit-a_n_663915.html>.

Associating with Christ but not his church is a distinction Jesus would never have made. (110)

[via: I have a difficult time with the Anne Rice example and metaphor. First, most critics–including Richards and O’Brien–gloss over the rationale for Rice’s statement, being more about beliefs, than about the “community” of Christians. Second, “church” also means something quite different today than in Jesus’s day. So, how can we know what Jesus would or would not have supported given the institutionalization of our “contemporary ekklesia?” Did he not also rail against the Pharisees even though he was most in line with that sect?!]

Additionally, make a conscious effort to read the you in biblical texts as plural. Don’t worry if you get it wrong. You’re trying to correct a bad habit, and it’s okay to overcorrect at first. (110)

[via: I’m not sure what I think about this advice. Is “overcorrection” the right response to “misreading” when it comes to hermeneutics. A part of me feels the need to be more accurate and studied.]

5. Have You No Shame? Honor/Shame and Right/Wrong

…the one temptation that no man could resist. The ring made its bearer invisible. With it on, a man could do whatever he wished without others knowing. You may recognize this storyline; J. R. R. Tolkien used it in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movie didn’t explain, though, why humans found the “one ring” so tempting. Plato knew. “No man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice” if he was free to act without anyone’s knowledge, Plato wrote; “No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market.” (Plato, Resp 2. See also H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man (1897), where the invisible man (Griffin) is unable to resist stealing.) (114-115)

This inner voice is strengthened by the concomitant Western habit of dichotomizing everything, usually into good or bad. In fact, it is more basic than that. We tend to view everything as an “either-or.” Aristotle’s use of syllogisms and, ultimately, the dualism of Descartes have conditioned Westerners to polarize choices into two opposing categories. [Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, offers helpful perspective here; see The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003).] (Many readers will be trying to decide if we are right or wrong about this!) Eastern thought, influenced by the Tao and Confucius, the yin/yang, tend to strive for harmony rather than distinction, stressing more a both-and perspective rather than an either-or. (115)

In a shame culture, it is not the guilty conscience but the community that punishes the offender by shaming him. (117)

To summarize, in an innocence/guilt culture (which includes most Western societies), the laws of society, the rules of the church, local mores and the code of the home are all internalized in the person. The goal is that when a person breaks one of these, her or his conscience will be pricked. In fact, it is hoped that the conscience will discourage the person from breaking the rule in the first place. The battle is fought on the inside. In an honor/shame society, such as that of the Bible and much of the non-Western world today, the driving force is to not bring shame upon yourself, your family, your church, your village, your tribe or even your faith. The determining force is the expectations of your significant others (primarily your family). Their expectations don’t override morals or right/wrong; they actually are the ethical standards. In these cultures, you are shamed when you disappoint those whose expectations matter. “You did wrong”—not by breaking a law and having inner guilt but by failing to meet the expectations of your community. For our discussion here, the point to notice is that the verdict comes not from the inner conscience of the perpetrator but from the external response of his or her group. One’s actions are good or bad depending upon how the community interprets them. (118-119)

We typically assume that David was aware of his sin but stubbornly refused to repent. Then, when Nathan confronts David—or, in a sense, tricks him—David’s conscience is pricked, he gives in to his inner conviction and he publicly repents. It is far more likely that David had not given the matter a moment’s thought. (120-121)

God worked through the honor/shame system, but we would err if we implied this was merely a system. God himself is concerned about honor/shame even if we Westerners are not. (127)

Moses doesn’t appeal to God’s sense of justice (“it wouldn’t be right”) but to his sense of honor (“you will be shamed”): “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self” (Ex 32:12–13). (128)

[via: What is the distinction here, if any, between shame and/or reputation?]

Although Plato predates the New Testament, his influence had not yet shaped Palestinian culture. It was still an honor/shame society. (128)

[via: Stipulated, but not substantiated. Hellenism’s spread was pretty vast and vigorous.]

During his earthly ministry, Jesus worked within the honor/shame system. In the ancient world, there was only so much honor to go around—it was a limited good. Everyone was scrambling for more. Jesus’ opponents understood this well. (129)

[via: Honor/shame as a zero sum game. Is this accurate?]

In Ephesians 4:1, the apostle calls his listeners to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (see also 2 Thess 1:11). The word worthy should alert us that honor/shame language is being used. (132)

We deceive ourselves when we think sin is individual and independent of a community’s honor. Our individualism feeds the false sense that sin is merely an inner wrong—the private business between me and God, to be worked out on judgment day. (132)

Ancients didn’t understand the world like we do, but they were good observers. When one person in a group caught a cold, often others in the group got sick. When one person in a group began bad habits or behaviors, often others in the group did as well. We might say that one scenario follows biology (viruses) and the other sociology (one bad apple spoils the whole bunch). Nonetheless, contamination happens. (133)

In the meantime, pay attention to where stories take place in Scripture. If an event or conversation is taking place publicly, there’s a good chance that honor/shame is at stake, such as in the story of Ruth and Boaz. As we mentioned above, the key difference between the questions Nicodemus and Jesus’ disciples asked and those asked by Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders was context: Nicodemus and the disciples questioned Jesus privately (see, for example, Jn 3:2 and Mt 17:19). The Jewish leaders questioned him publicly. You might object that the primary difference was motive: Nicodemus and the disciples were asking sincere questions, while the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus. That’s true. But context indicates motive. Private questions were not honor challenges. Public questions were. (135)

6. Sand Through the Hourglass: Time

…time is one of the ways cultures are most different. In the West, time is a hot commodity (137)

In the non-Western world, by contrast, the correct time is often connected to a condition or situation. Some call this an “event” orientation, in which, as Duane Elmer writes, “Each event is as long or as short as it needs to be. One cannot determine the required time in advance. Time is elastic, dictated only by the natural unfolding of the event. The quality of the event is the primary issue, not the quantity of minutes or hours.” Relationships trump schedules, so things begin when everyone who needs to be there has arrived. (140)

the biblical authors, like many non-Westerners, were less concerned with clock or calendar time (chronos) and more concerned with the appropriateness and fittingness of events (kairos). You might say they were more concerned with timing than with time. (145)

Western stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The sequence (chronos) is important. When you tell a story all out of sequence, the story quits making sense—or so we Westerners think. | Not so elsewhere. In the non-Western world, stories often circulate around the event until it coalesces; therefore, orderliness (but not the chronological sequence) is important. (147)

Western readers have a tendency to import our concern for chronology into Scripture. Unfortunately for us, events in the Bible are not necessarily presented in historical, chronological order. (148)

Since Luke uses references to the temple as an organizing theme in his Gospel, for example, the “correct” sequence for Luke is the one that ends where Jesus stood on the pinnacle of the temple and was urged to jump (Lk 4:9). Matthew has every major event in the life of Jesus occur on a mountain. (This sometimes requires referring to a hill as a mountain, as in the Sermon on the Mount.) For Matthew, the “correct” sequence is the one that has the crescendo event on a mountain, where Jesus is taken to a high mountain to view the world’s kingdoms. Either scenario is likely to bother Western readers. Shouldn’t the writers have told the story in the “correct” sequence? I suspect Matthew and Luke would both insist they did. Moreover, they would likely insist the other evangelist did as well. The chronological sequence simply didn’t matter to them in the same way it matters to us.| Please note, however, that the biblical authors were intentional about the sequence in which they presented events, even if they weren’t preoccupied with historical, chronological order. We Westerners can focus so much on the time (chronology) that we miss the timing (the meaning of the sequence) in a biblical passage. (148-149)

Mark likes this storytelling method. He tells us that Jairus comes to request healing for his daughter (Mk 5:22–24). Jesus agrees. On their way to Jairus’s home, Jesus heals a woman who touched the hem of his cloak (Mk 5:25–34). Only after Jairus’s daughter has died does Jesus heal her (Mk 5:35–43). Mark connects these stories in a number of ways. Both the girl and woman are called “daughter.” The girl is twelve years old; the woman has been bleeding for twelve years. Jairus falls to the ground; the woman falls to the ground. Clearly Mark wants us to read the stories together. Most important for our purposes here, Mark’s sequencing of the events connects them. He wants us to interpret them together, compare and contrast the responses to Jesus. We may be inclined to think the story of the bleeding woman is told in the middle of the Jairus story merely because that’s when it happened. In this case, our love for chronology can lead us to miss the kairos of Mark’s point. (149-150)

PART THREE: Deep Below the Surface

7. First Things First: Rules and Relationships

Because Western readers tend to understand relationships in terms of rules and laws, we have a tendency also to understand ancient relationships, including those we read about in Scripture, in terms of rules. (160-161)

Rules define relationships. … In contrast to the modern Western worldview, in ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality. (161)

modern Western exegetes often define patronage—a key element of first-century Roman society—using forensic language. We describe the relationship between a patron and a client as contractual, like a business, rather than as familial. (162)

institutions of society, like family and patronage, went without being said. Everyone knew what the proper behavior was. A good patron solved the problems of his or her clients: assisting with trade guilds, business disputes, refinancing loans and easing tensions with city elders. Ordinary folks like Marcus had neither the clout nor the social graces to negotiate such endeavors. The patron did “favors” for his clients who then fell under his circle of influence and protection. In return, the client was expected to be loyal (faithful) and was sometimes asked to do things for the patron. (163-164)

Patronage had its own vocabulary. Words we usually consider particularly Christian terms—grace and faith—were common parlance before Paul commandeered them. The undeserved gifts of assistance the patron offered were commonly called charis (“grace” and “gift”). The loyalty the client offered the patron in response was called pistis (“faith” and “faithfulness”). Roman philosophers noted that when one received a god’s favor (charis), one should respond with love, joy and hope. When Paul sought to explain the Christian’s new relationship with God, then, one of the ways he did so was in terms of the ancient system of patronage—something everyone understood. In other words, it went without being said that relationship is the premier and determinative aspect of charis, grace. (166)

In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time. Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries. The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1:9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken. (166)

The Israelites were clearly instructed that upon entering the Promised Land, every Israelite was to get an inheritance (land) and no Canaanites were (Josh 1). Yet the very next story is about a Canaanite who was given an inheritance, Rahab (Josh 2; 6). The story after that tells of the Israelite Achan, who was cut from his inheritance (Josh 7). The stories are woven together around the theme of sacrifices to the Lord. (169)

The trick is that our definitions of natural and supernatural are ever changing. We humans set the line between natural and supernatural. Natural indicates “things we understand.” Supernatural things are things we don’t (yet) understand. Since human knowledge is growing, the line keeps moving. (170-171)

Putting aside the question of whether or not God actually uses lightning to smite people, our point is this: now that we understand the physics of lightning, Westerners remove it from God’s hands. Thunder cannot answer Western prayers. Lightning does not smite Western sinners. Once we understand a rule of the universe, we cut God out of any relationship to it. (171)

We want to be very clear here: your authors are not opposed to scientific inquiry or discovery. We like science. We don’t believe sincere Christian faith and a scientific understanding of the universe are fundamentally incompatible. We do, however, want to caution against naturalism. Naturalism assumes the natural world and its laws (as opposed to supernatural laws) can fully explain the universe. In naturalism, the supernatural—if there is any such thing—has no effect on the natural world. For Christians, science is our friend; naturalism is not. Naturalism tells us that once we understand the rules that govern the world, we have no need for a relationship with its Creator. And naturalism, for most Westerners, goes without being said. (171)

[via: This is going to be problematic, for as Sean Carroll persuasively argues, science will conclude naturalism.]

Our point is not that there is anything faithless about taking medicine. Our point is that at an unconscious level, our expectation that the universe operates according to natural laws excludes the possibility from our minds that God might intervene in our daily affairs. (172)

…does relationship ever trump theology? Such a question could convene a heresy trial in many denominations. But Jesus prayed that his followers would “be one” (Jn 17:11). Does this mean that we must somehow “correct” the theology of all other believers so that, as a result, we can “be one”? (173)

…we have to learn to identify when the Bible is prioritizing relationship instead of rules or laws. | One way to do this is to pay attention to the motivation or rationale a biblical writer offers for a commandment. (174)

8. Getting Right Wrong: Virtue and Vice

We are profoundly influenced by our culture to recognize certain behaviors as virtues and other behaviors as vices. (178)

Can you imagine a Jesus who doesn’t have all his teeth? (179)

Weight control and oral hygiene are Western virtues, not ancient ones—nor, arguably, biblical ones. Nevertheless, in a picture or movie, we need a slender, fit Jesus with a full set of pearly white teeth (flowing hair and blue eyes are a nice touch, too). Virtues and vices, though, are issues far more significant than cosmetic dentistry. While we might grudgingly concede a tooth or two, we are confident Jesus conformed to the rest of our virtues. (179)

…five Western virtues that are either nonbiblical (that do not have support from the Scriptures) or anti-biblical (that directly contradict the teaching of the Scriptures). (183)

  • Self-sufficiency
  • Fighting for freedom
  • Pax Americana
  • Leadership
  • Tolerance

Self-sufficiency, freedom, “might makes right,” leadership and tolerance are all virtues we will likely teach to the next generation, whether consciously or unconsciously. It should be clear by now that not all our Western virtues come from the Bible, even if we insist that the Bible is our authority for moral conduct. (186-187)

Since, then, the wealth still overflows, it gets buried underground, stashed away in secret places. For (they say), “what’s to come is uncertain, we may face unexpected needs.” Therefore it is equally uncertain whether you will have any use for your buried gold; it is not uncertain, however, what shall be the penalty of inveterate inhumanity. For when you failed, with your thousand notions, wholly to expend your wealth, you then concealed it in the earth. A strange madness, that, when gold lies hidden with other metals, one ransacks the earth; but after it has seen the light of day, it disappears again beneath the ground. From this, I perceive, it happens to you that in burying your money you bury also your heart. “For where your treasure is,” it is said, “there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). This is why the commandments cause sorrow; because they have nothing to do with useless spending sprees, they make life unbearable for you. – Basil, “Sermon to the Rich,” in Patrologia Graeca, ed. J.-P. Migne, vol. 31, cols. 277c–304c.

…perhaps the best way to become sensitive to our own presuppositions—what goes without being said for us—is to read the writing of Christians from different cultures and ages. (190)

9. It’s All About Me: Finding the Center of God’s Will

Western Christians, especially North American Christians, tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us—to each of us and all of us individually. More to the point, we are confident that us always includes me specifically. (193)

At some point in this generation, “Take up your cross and follow me” changed into, “Come to Jesus and he’ll make your life better.” (195)

Much preaching is focused on the felt needs of listeners; this style communicates that the value of the Scriptures, and ultimately the gospel itself, is what it can do for me. This means that while the church has not created the American preoccupation with me, it has certainly reinforced it. If we are encouraged to think about our relationships with God and the church in terms of what’s in it for me, it’s only natural that we approach the Bible the same way. And you guessed it: this tendency can cause us to misread the Bible. (196)

Now, what makes this misreading so tricky is that it is built upon at least two very positive beliefs. First, we assume that the Bible applies to us. One of the important commitments of evangelical Christianity is that the Bible is for us in every age. Every part of the Scriptures, even though they record events that happened in other countries and thousands of years ago, has application for us today. That is to say, we acknowledge that the Bible records history, but it is not only about things in the past. It is also relevant for Christians in the present and, by extension, in the future. A second influential, and accurate, assumption is that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Because his character does not change, we are confident he will deal with us as he has dealt with his people previously. He was trustworthy then; he is trustworthy now. We then extrapolate that promises that applied to his people in the past continue to apply to his people in the present. If they didn’t, we reason, God would be unpredictable. But he isn’t. We trust him because “his compassions never fail” (Lam 3:22).

| We wholeheartedly affirm both of these statements: that the Bible applies to us and that God is not capricious. The problem is that these foundational ideas are tweaked when we view them through the lens of me. The Christian church has always believed that the Scriptures are for us. But our historical location changes what that means. As Eugene Peterson has argued, the original process through which God worked with his people was through speaking-writing-reading (aloud)-listening. That is, until the Reformation, people heard the Scriptures in church—and only in church. That meant the natural question when interpreting the Bible was, “What does this mean to us?” With the double-edged gift of Gutenberg’s printing press, the process is often reduced merely to writing-reading. Now we read the Bible alone in our homes. This allows a communal process to become individualized. Worse, one can ˆ the Word of God (meaning a book), rather than ˆ the Word of God, which is usually a communal act. The act of carrying around a book gives the individual the perception: I have the Word of God. Now instead of asking, “What does this mean to us?” our instinctive question is, “What does this mean to me?” The shift to individual, reader-centered interpretation was natural, post-Gutenberg. But we must never lose sight of the implications of that shift. (196-197)

When we don’t immediately recognize the relevance of a passage—if it’s not immediately clear what I can get out of it—we are less likely to read it. This leaves us basing our Christian life on less than the full counsel of God. (198)

We wonder, If this verse is not true for me, can it be true at all? (199)

…we should determine what the text meant then before we try to apply it to ourselves now. We suggest a better interpretation of Jeremiah 29 runs something like this: even though Israel is in the condition of exile, God will prosper them by prospering those who enslave them (Jer 29:7). Someday he will deliver them from exile, but that will happen well in the future. Until then, Israel is to rest assured that God is at work for their deliverance, even when he does not appear to be. (201)

Perhaps the sensibility runs even deeper. Do we think, Of course, I would be on stage when the world ends. How could God do such a dramatic event without me? We don’t say it so bluntly, but the subconscious reasoning often runs this way: Of course the world couldn’t end before I got here, but now that I’m here, there isn’t any reason for God to wait any longer. (206-207)

This cultural assumption about the supremacy of me is the one to which we Westerners are perhaps blindest. We rightly search for the center of God’s will, but with the unspoken assumption that once we find it, the seat will have my individual name on it. We have hundreds of years of cultural reinforcement driving us to read the Bible with ourselves at the center. There are those who are striving to correct the tendency in certain areas of our theology. (207-208)

Conclusion: Three Easy Steps for Removing Our Cultural Blinders?




EMBRACE ERROR. Whether we like it or not, we learn more when we get something wrong the first time than we do when we are right from the beginning. (215)

Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Fear only failing to learn from your mistakes. (216)


Resources for Further Exploration


Introduction: Coming to Terms with Our Cultural Blinders

For a great general introduction to the differences between how Westerners and non-Westerners think, see:

Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why. New York: Free Press, 2003.

For more on the changing demographics of Christians worldwide and the implications of these changes for biblical interpretation, see:

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

———. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Kenneth Bailey’s work in this area is excellent and quite readable. We highly recommend his books for exploring this topic. For an introduction to the ways being unaware of our cultural blind spots has affected the way Westerners conceive of church, see especially:

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Rah, Soong-Chan. The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

For an introduction to how non-Western Christians (and minority Western Christians) understand the task and challenges of theology (and how that affects biblical interpretation), see:

Felder, Cain Hope, ed. Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.

Fields, Bruce L. Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Greenman, Jeffrey P. and Gene L. Green, ed. Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Parratt, John, ed. An Introduction to Third World Theologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Chapter 1: Serving Two Masters

The best general books on biblical values are:

Pilch, John J., and Bruce J. Malina, ed. Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning: A Handbook. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Rohrbaugh, Richard L., ed. The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

For more specific values, see:

Campbell, Ken M., ed. Marriage and Family in the Biblical World. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003.

Cohick, Lynn H. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Ebeling, Jennie R. Women’s Lives in Biblical Times. New York: T & T Clark International, 2010.

Hanson, K. C., and Douglas E. Oakman. Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Chapter 2: The Bible in Color

A great treatment of the biblical perspective on race and ethnicity is:

Hays, J. Daniel. From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003.

For specific discussions of race in the Bible, see:

Adamo, David T. Africa and Africans in the Old Testament. San Francisco: Christian Universities Press, 1998.

Bilde, Per. et al., ed. Ethnicity in Hellenistic Egypt. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University, 1992.

Brenner, Athalya. Color Terms in the Old Testament, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 21. Sheffield: Sheffield, 1982.

Brett, Mark G. Ethnicity and the Bible. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Copher, Charles B. “Three Thousand Years of Biblical Interpretation with Reference to Black Peoples.” In African American Religious Studies, edited by Gayraud Wilmore, 105–28. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989.

Hall, Jonathan M. Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Snowden, Frank M. “Attitudes towards Blacks in the Greek and Roman World: Misinterpretations of the Evidence.” In Africa and Africans in Antiquity, edited by Edwin Yamauchi, 246–75. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 2001.

For discussions of race in Western Christianity, see:

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Keener, Craig S., and Glenn Usry. Defending Black Faith: Answers to Tough Questions about African-American Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1997.

McNeil, Brenda Salter, and Rick Richardson. The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Okholm, Dennis L., ed. The Gospel in Black and White: Theological Resources for Racial Reconciliation. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Pearse, Meic. Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Perkins, Spencer, and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Chapter 3: Just Words?

Although the following is a rather technical read, McGilchrist has a great chapter on the nature of language in the Western mind:

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010.

Some readers may find discussions of the biblical languages helpful, such as:

Moule, C. F. D. An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Chapter 4: Captain of My Soul

We consider fiction to be a great way to gain an understanding of the mindset of collectivist cultures. Here are a few that have been enlightening for us:

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1959.

Endo, Shusaku. The Samurai. Translated by Van C. Gessel. New York: New Directions Books, 1982.

This book illustrates the challenge of maintaining a collectivist religious worldview in individualist America:

Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. First published 1967.

There are also helpful treatments of the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures in books on crosscultural communication, such as:

Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2002.

As for study Bibles, we recommend the following:

NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Chapter 5: Have You No Shame?

For general introductions to the topic of honor and shame and how it affects biblical interpretation, see:

deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000.

Neyrey, Jerome H. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

For a brief introduction to the way our Western assumptions about the power of internal conscience affects how we read the Bible, see:

Stendahl, Krister. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199–215.

Chapter 6: Sand Through the Hourglass

Because it is a novel, the following has limited value for explaining a Western view of time. But Vonnegut capitalizes on Western assumptions about the relationship between time (and especially chronology) and meaning:

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991. First published 1966.

A brief attempt to explain an Eastern understanding of time, from an Indian point of view, can be found at:

Nakamura, Hajime. “The Notion of Time in India.” Accessed February 18, 2012, <www.drury.edu/ess/Culture/indian.htm>.

For a technical survey, see:

Aveni, Anthony F. Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures. New York: Tauris Parke, 2000.

Chapter 7: First Things First

For a technical discussion to assist American attorneys working with the Japanese, see:

Minami, Ken R. “Japanese Thought and Western Law: A Tangential View of Japanese Bengoshi and the Japanese American Attorney,” Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review 301 (1986); <http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/ilr/vol8/iss2/4>.

For discussions of patronage, see the books by deSilva and Rohrbaugh listed above.

Chapter 8: Getting Right Wrong

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Chapter 9: It’s All About Me

For a general introduction to the process of interpretation that takes seriously the differences between meaning and application, see:

Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Richards, E. R., & O’Brien, B. J. (2012). Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (pp. 221–225). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

About VIA



  1. And Nouwen being a celibate gay is different from Stott exactly how? Interesting how our current cultural preoccupations are inserted for context.

    • VIA

      Are you asking a real and honest question, or posting an opinion in the form of a question?

      As for the note I provided, celibacy as a “spiritual gift” for a straight person and celibacy as a “theological conviction” for gay person (e.g. Wesley Hill: https://vialogue.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/washed-and-waiting-notes-review/) are not the same thing. They come from different beliefs. I’m not claiming to KNOW what those beliefs are for Stott or Nouwen, nor am I making any direct proposition. As stated, I NOTE it because it’s relevant to understand that CONTEXT does matter, and realizing differential contexts push us to further inquiry.

      • Sorry if it wasn’t clear. I honestly asked a question followed by an opinion. Is it your conviction that “spiritual gifts” come with no struggle, question or confusion? Or that straight desires are any easier to tame? In the context of celibacy, I honestly can’t see that the struggle is vastly different. This prompted my further inquiry and comment. Your reply speaks more to sexual expression of homosexual Christians, which to me is a different context than your note alluded to in the post. No offense doctor, but straight or gay celibacy is a deliberate act against our current nature. In that context I offered the question.

  2. VIA

    Thanks for clarification.

    NO, it is NOT my conviction that “spiritual gifts” come with no struggle, question or confusion. The difference is THEOLOGICAL, contingent upon whether one believes that gay relationships are prohibited or not according to their faith convictions. Again, I reference Wesley Hill’s thesis in contrast to Matthew Vines as an example of the distinctions.

    If I’m reading your reply correctly, that “…sexual expression of homosexual Christians…is a different context than your not alluded to in the post,” it sounds like you’re saying exactly why I noted it. It IS different, but was not mentioned by the authors of the book, which is why it is NOTED. Context matters, and some perhaps could argue is the entirety of meaning. Noting it was my way of saying, “there’s additional context here that needs to be considered.”

    I’m not sure who you’re replying to as “doctor,” as I do not have a doctorate, but that’s very kind of you to respect the title.

    • Wow, thanks doc. And, I was directing the title to you. Obviously you are a very well-read and educated person. A doctor without a degree still deserves to be honored and respected. I really do appreciate your posts and the difference of opinion, observation and experience that you offer. However, I will resume my place as a silent follower. I do not doubt that you have a point for sharing Nouwen’s sexual orientation. Perhaps when I read “Misreading Scripture” in its entirety I will understand your point. Thanks again for the work you do. I will continue to follow with interest.

  3. Mike Simmons

    My initial reaction is that if one looks too closely into cultural context, one will fall into the same trap, and miss what God is saying through His Word. Hungry for more and will endeavour to understand.

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