Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: A Book Review

A deeper look into the world of Scripture…

misreadingI picked up Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes after seeing it a few times on my Amazon “recommended list” as I troll about for some new books to read. This one struck me as being eminently practical for those of us who teach Bible studies. For years I’ve been teaching people in churches that one of the major challenges we have in reading Scripture is that we tend to view it through our own 21st century, highly individualistic, pluralistic, and me-istic culture while the writers lived with a very different set of cultural values. Reading and interpreting an ancient text through a postmodern lens can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretation unless we first spend some time studying what it meant to those who cracked open the original scrolls and read them for the first time. When we first know what it meant to them, then we can start discerning what it might mean for us as we look over their shoulders some 2,000+ years later.

Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien have given us a primer on some of the key cultural differences between our contemporary Western worldview and the worldview of the biblical writers. “We can easily forget that Scripture is like a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience,” they write. “To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite.” For Richards and O’Brien the subtext of the culture(s) of the biblical world are as important as the text itself. “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said,” is the key thesis of the book. To read and study the Bible well means that we need to understand the subtext of the culture within which it was written.

Take for example two of the most widely used words in Christianity: grace and faith. What goes without saying in the 21st century church is that both grace and faith are forensic words–words that imply some kind of theological or juridicial meaning. We Wesleyans, for example, can define the nature of God’s grace based on arguments gleaned from Scripture, and many 21st people define faith based on the post-Enlightenment concept of intellectual assent.

When first century people used those words, however, they were understood through the lens of the Greco-Roman cultural norms of patron-client relationships. A wealthy and influential patron would take care of some issue for a client and then would expect that client’s loyalty and, perhaps one day, a favor in return. Think about the opening scenes of the movie The Godfather when Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone–the powerful and wealthy individual–meets with Bonasera, a client seeking justice. Here, we have a classic echo of the Roman patron-client relationship:

The client seeks the patron’s help, which the patron offers as a gift (but a gift with strings attached). In the Roman world, that “gift” was known as “charis” or “grace.” The client’s response was “faith,” not merely believing in the patron’s ability but actually acting faithfully on the patron’s behalf. Paul echoes this concept in his writing as in Ephesians 2:8-9 (Ephesians have been saved by grace through the patron’s (God’s) gift, because they could not do it on their own). But the response of the client is “faith” (believing, yes, but also doing the “good works” which God (the patron) prepared for them to do on his behalf). Here, grace and faith define a relationship more than a mere intellectual concept. God does for us and we respond by placing our faith, trust, and hope in God, but also by acting on his behalf. God’s grace and favor saves us from the problem of sin and death, and we respond with faith worked out in action–doing “a service” for God as part of God’s larger mission in the world. The works don’t save us–only the patron can do that–but the works are expected in return. That’s closer to what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace” than it is to the modern idea of faith as a simple intellectual decision. It connects faith to discipleship as well. We respond to what Christ has done for us by serving him and our neighbors. We respond by becoming disciples–a vocation and not a status.

The client seeks the patron’s help, which the patron offers as a gift (but a gift with strings attached). In the Roman world, that “gift” was known as “charis” or “grace.” The client’s response was “faith,” not merely believing in the patron’s ability but actually acting faithfully on the patron’s behalf. Paul echoes this concept in his writing as in Ephesians 2:8-9 (Ephesians have been saved by grace through the patron’s (God’s) gift, because they could not do it on their own). But the response of the client is “faith” (believing, yes, but also doing the “good works” which God (the patron) prepared for them to do on his behalf. Here, grace and faith define a relationship more than a mere intellectual concept. God does for us and we respond by placing our faith, trust, and hope in God, but also by acting on his behalf. God’s grace and favor saves us from the problem of sin and death, and we respond with faith worked out in action–doing “a service” for God as part of God’s larger mission in the world. The works don’t save us–only the patron can do that–but the works are expected in return. That’s closer to what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace” than it is to the modern idea of faith as a simple intellectual decision. It connects faith to discipleship as well. We respond to what Christ has done for us by serving him and our neighbors. We respond by becoming disciples–a vocation and not a status.

The authors challenge the way we read Scripture through an individualistic American lens by reminding us that the Bible was borne out of a collectivist culture. When the Bible says “you” we most often read it as first person singular, when most of the time it is rendered in the original language as a first person plural (“Y’all or “Yinz” as we used to say back home in western PA). In the Bible, and in many ancient cultures, it was the family or the community that determined things like social mores, behavior, shame and honor, and rules rather than the individual’s conscience or perceived rights. If the 21st century worldview is all about the individual standing out, pulling himself or herself up by the bootstraps, making it on his or her own, the 1st century view was about how the individual fit into the community, what role he or she played, how they conformed to the standards of the community. The church was born out of that collectivist worldview and perhaps one of the reasons we struggle with the concept of being the Body of Christ is that we are so busy catering to the individual. We’re not creating community in much of our church rhetoric and marketing, we’re creating individual religious consumers.

Richards and O’Brien dive into the divergent worldviews of honor and shame versus right and wrong, the divergent ways ancient people valued kairos time (the “right” time) versus our obsession with chronos (“clock”) time, the differences in cultures based on rules and relationships, and the difference between virtue and vice. Each of these comparisons yield some deep insights into the biblical world and, as a result, they shed light on our own cultural values. The idea is not that we go back to the biblical culture, but rather that we critique our own through the biblical lens. In that sense, we are not reading Scripture through our lenses, but we begin to read ourselves through the lens of Scripture.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is a great companion for pastors, teachers, and anyone doing Bible study and would make a great text for a small group study in the church. It’s an easy and relatively quick read and will cause 21st century Christians to have a lot of “aha” moments as they question what “goes without saying” in our culture. I highly recommend it!

 

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