I’m finishing a recent book called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien), and it’s proved to be quite profitable and thought-provoking. The goal of the book is to explore just how deeply our unintentional cultural assumptions run when we approach the biblical texts. Are there places where modern Westerners are perhaps not reading Scripture the way in which it should be read because of preconditioned thought-patterns we have?
I think the book itself is a valid and necessary enterprise, and the authors do an excellent job unmasking some of the cultural blinders and refractive lenses that we may not even realize are there. No one reads Scripture from a “neutral” position, so what are some of the things that Western Christians should examine?
Richards and O’Brien probe three “layers” of cultural values and assumptions ranging from what they call “above the surface” to “just below the surface” to “deep below the surface”. They consider how our understanding of social mores, race relations, language, individualism/collectivism, honor/shame, time, rules/relationships, virtue/vice, and the notion of the self in relation to God’s will can drastically impact the way in which we understand Scripture.
For me, one of the best examples was how they expound the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah through the cultural lenses of honor and shame (rather than the typical Western “guilt/innocence” paradigm). I’ve read, heard, and taught that story many times, but was struck at how much more can be gleaned when reading it the way that most Eastern cultures, ancient and modern, would read it.
The critique that the Western focus emphasizes the individual over the community and rigid categories of guilt or innocence over those of honor and shame is a fair one, and can reveal how the force of some texts are unintentionally muted. For example, the authors ask, how might Paul’s original cultural notions of collectivism and shame intensify his point in 1 Corinthians 5 about dealing with a believer engaged in unrepentant sexual immorality? Might there not be a communal responsibility and impact that we often miss if we think, “Well, that’s just their problem. It’s not like I did anything wrong”?
Whether we realize it or not, we bring a host of linguistic, social, and even theological assumptions with us every time we open Scripture. What are those assumptions? How do they impact what we read and how we understand it? These questions may be painful and difficult at times, but they are valid and important.
One final observation: to say that our understanding of Scripture may be culturally conditioned is not to say that we should culturally condition Scripture. The mores, values, and ideologies of the day are not to be imposed upon Scripture in order to get it to say what we want it to say. Rather, we are to re-examine our mores, values, and ideologies under the penetrating light of the Word. To say that there may be complimentary lenses through which to read Scripture is not to say that it is of such plasticity so as to lose all sense of meaning. The point is simply that we need to ask ourselves why we understand a passage in a particular way.
We confess that, “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), which means that Word may, at times, penetrate even our most deeply held cultural assumptions and reveal to us something deeper and greater about the God who has called us to himself in Christ.