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adrw // Andrew Alexander

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

Books, Author(Brandon J. O'Brien), Author(E. Randolph Richards)2 min read

2016 | E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien

The introduction for this book is worth reading as it lays out the author's motivations and limits to the book. Specifically, though the authors ask many questions pointing out how a Western person may unknowingly read into the Bible many things that are culturally relative to Western society, the book doesn't have a goal to exegete the real–deal–culturally–independent-100%–true interpretation of scripture. The author points at times at different starting points in the Biblical text, provides Eastern and Western views, and leaves it to the reader to determine how best to proceed (& potentially update their interpretation).

I find this attitude of the book much more freeing than the arrogance (which though it theoretically could rightly be deserved if correct) that could be perceived from a book arguing that their interpretation is infallible.

The authors draw from their Evangelical growing up and work in Texas as well as missionary experience Indonesia to form their stereotypes of Eastern and Western scriptural perspectives. Though this limited set of input viewpoints (ie. n=2) was a limitation, granting some benefit of the doubt and allowing for the chance that the presented broad Western/Eastern stereotypes derived had some merit did allow for some thought provoking lessons.

For example, in many Biblical verses regarding an ambiguous but serious sin, a Western reader perceives the more serious sin will be sexual sin, whereas the Eastern reader may read different sins such as disloyalty to parents or accumulating vast wealth as the likely serious sin alluded to.

With respect to wealth specifically, Western readers generally carry a view of wealth that wealth in and of itself is not evil or sinful, but it is "the love of money" that is the true problem; that societal wealth is a growing pie and personal accumulation is not exploitive as a result. In contrast, the Eastern reader comes with a view that societal wealth is stagnant and any accumulation must inherently be exploitive; one must have less so that you can have more. Thus, any warnings of wealth in Scripture must not simply be limited to lustful accumulation, but any accumulation at all.

The above wealth East/West difference was especially memorable given my wife's family's Eastern background which shows up in comparable discussions around wealth, taxes, or corruption and similar contrasting perspectives on the nature of wealth accumulation driving such discussions.

Another notable story came from the missionary while in Indonesia being approached by church elders seeking advice on whether to admit to membership a young, married couple who had moved to the community 2 years ago and had been active, strong members, yet had a dark sin that the elders had recently been made aware of. What was the sin? The couple had "married on the run", they had eloped and gotten married against their families' wishes. Throughout the Bible, children are urged to respect their parents, surely this significant sin must provide great dissonance against their otherwise good record of faith and service. Yet unsurprisingly, the seriousness of eloping was a shock to the missionary (and to myself reading), who with Western eyes viewed the entering into of marriage as a primarily individual decision of the couple, and if the case warrants, even against their family for the sake of what the couple believes is a worthy union.

Overall, I believe the book accomplished its purpose of provoking many meditations and investigations on the cultural blinders that I wear as I read and interpret scripture and live out my faith, and opened my heart to how I can seek out and learn more from brothers and sisters from around the world who may value and teach me what my blinders may have left my faith and understanding missing.

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