Book Review: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

by Rev. Penny Vann

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien published by IVP 2012. Reviewed by Penny Vann.

“Context, Context, Context,” hermeneutics professors everywhere drill into the skulls of their students. Hermeneutics and consequently applications and theology are what this book is about. Richards’ and O’Brien’s strong commitment to proper interpreting of Scripture is what drives this book. They remind us westerners that our interpretation of Scripture, unless we are aware of it, is influenced by our cultural framework. They point out that some of our culture is so deeply embedded in us we don’t even realize it is there.

The authors’ goals in writing this book are first to remind the readers that the Bible is a foreign book, so to read it is to engage in a cross-cultural experience. The second goal they have is to raise questions as to what, because of our culture, readers misinterpret or overlook in Scripture; for instance, in one of the authors’ experiments only 4% of westerners remembered the famine in the story of the Prodigal Son. Their third goal is to give suggestions as to how to lessen our culture’s impact on our interpretations and thereby on the western church’s Christian walk and theology. Last, they wish to make us aware of areas of our cultural thinking of which we are truly unaware.

They accomplish the goals by discussing nine cultural traits that westerners have. Each trait is deeper than the last and therefore less perceived. The nine traits are: mores, prejudices, language, individualism, shame vs. guilt, time, law, virtue, center of existence. These traits are then compared to other cultures such as Indonesian culture or the culture of Bible times. The authors do a good job in bringing up Scriptures that westerners often misinterpret for each section of traits. Some examples of this are:

  • Revelation 3:15.  Jesus is telling the Laodiceans that he wishes they were hot or cold. Many westerners interpret this to mean that Jesus wishes his people were either on fire for him or totally pagan rather than nominal. However, Laodiceans would have interpreted this statement differently.
  • Jeremiah 29:11. Many, according to the authors, interpret this passage individualistically and therefore believe that God is promising every believer a prosperous life. The authors point out that this passage was for the nation of Judah as a community and not as individuals and therefore should be interpreted as such.

Another strength of this book is the questions at the end of each chapter and resources at the end of the book, which help drive home their points well.

There are many books on interpreting Scripture and many others that compare western to eastern culture. There are not many books that combine both. This book does this well and would help any westerner wishing to study Scripture better. This book, however, does have some weaknesses. Hyperbole is one of the glaring flaws. When the authors discuss that westerners tend to be introspective vs. the people of the Bible, they suggest David did not engage in this at all. Yet Psalm 139 and 51 would argue against this assumption. Also, while discussing individualism vs. collectivism they make it seem that the entire of Scripture is communal in thinking, yet, there are people in Scripture being judged for individual sins. The second is that though they keep saying that the eastern cultures are NOT totally accurate in interpreting the Bible either, by their constant alluding to Indonesian culture they make it seem that they are.

Weaknesses aside, I do recommend the book to anyone who truly wishes to interpret Scripture. The book is helped by the authors’ constant commitments to two principles; readers must know the context of Scripture and any Bible passage has only one meaning. It is also excellent for making the reader aware of how the undercurrent of culture distorts the understanding and applying of the Bible. Last, and probably more important, it is also really useful for getting conversations going about the issues raised.

Penny Vann serves as an Asia Pacific Area Director and a Global Training Coordinator for ACGC Department of World Outreach. She has a Master’s degree in Missions from Columbia International University and has served as a pastor, teacher and missionary. 

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