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Bringing our cultural assumptions to Scripture

Most of us don’t realise that, when we read the Bible, we bring to it certain assumptions from our upbringing and cultural background. This book attempts, successfully, to make us aware of some of these so that we don’t misunderstand what the biblical authors were saying. For they brought to their task a different set of assumptions from ours. The book is Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand the Bible by E.R. Richards & B.J. O’Brien (IVP, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3782-3).

[For UK readers, ‘blinders’ is the American term for what we call ‘blinkers’.] Both the authors have experience of different cultures. This enables them to give helpful current examples of the points they make before applying the same principles to the Scriptures.

It’s challenging stuff, I found, but has the ring of truth about it. The toughest part is that, because the assumptions are ‘what goes without saying’, we find it almost impossible to believe that there could be a different view—and if there is a different view, it must surely be wrong! Of the nine aspects of difference that the authors identify, the two I found most enlightening were (1) the individualist and (2) the right/wrong focus of the Western world compared with (1) the collectivist and (2) honour/shame ones of Bible times. Both are massive areas of totally different perception.

We all want to be sure we are understanding God’s Word correctly. This book will go a long way towards making that more likely. Highly recommended!

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]

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.  (82)

Because we privilege marriage as God's preferred way of life for everyone, churches in America, on the whole, do a very poor job of ministering to single adults.  (363)

Outside the West, wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves. If you make your slice of pie larger, then my slice is now smaller. In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor.  (378)

One of the ways Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible is by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty. (402)

The events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, so important for Jews and Christians at the time, were marginal events in a nothing town on the edge of an empire with more important matters to consider. If we fail to recognize this, we can fail to recognize just how remarkable the rapid growth of the early church really was.  (656)

Our cultural value for privacy is strictly a Western value; it is not derived from the Bible.  (810)

The language of patronage permeated everyday life. We know well the Christian terms grace and faith, but these were common before Paul used them. They were part of the language of patronage. When the patron gave unmerited gifts of assistance, these were commonly called charis, meaning "grace/gift.." The client responded with faithfulness to the patron, called pistis, or "faith."  (858)

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 distil propositions out of them. We want to know what they mean, in categorical terms. A philosophical description of God ("omnipresent") is better than an anthropomorphic one ("his eyes roam to and fro throughout the land"). Or so we think.  (873)

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 co-authors actively contributing. Paul's missionary endeavours were a team effort. This is more than just a bit of trivia. Scholars have debated for centuries whether all the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament were actually written by him. Many will argue that Paul couldn't have written certain letters because they don't have Pauline characteristics—that is, they don't "sound" like Paul. But if Paul regularly worked with co-authors and secretaries, if they actively contributed content and turns of phrase, then this might explain why Paul's letters have variations in style. They bear the marks of his partners. The Spirit's inspiration covered the entire process.  (1080)

The way the Bible portrays the family—specifically the expectations and obligations placed on family in collectivist cultures—challenges the way Westerners understand our identity and duties as the church, the "family of God."  (1112)

Jesus viewed us—his church—as a collectivist community. He came to establish a people of God, over which he would reign as king. It is not really "me and Jesus." He will reign in my heart because he will reign over all creation (Phil 2:10). In the West, it may help if the church started thinking more in terms of we than me.  (1168)

Individualist cultures tend also to be right/wrong (innocence/guilt) cultures, while collectivist cultures tend to be honour/ shame cultures.  (1204)

If a person from a shame culture commits a "sin," he will not likely feel guilty about it if no one else knows, for it is the community (not the individual) that determines whether one has lost face.  (1245)

In an honour/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.  (1261)

From beginning to end, the entire story of David and Bathsheba is steeped in honour and shame language, and this explains why Western readers often find some parts of the story confusing.  (1290)

This is why the Jewish officials killed Jesus. They had been challenging Jesus publicly (Mt 12:1-7, for example), and every time they "lost," they lost honour. They were tired of it, and they wanted their honour back.  (1403)

Pay attention to where stories take place in Scripture. If an event or conversation is taking place publicly, there's a good chance that honour/shame is at stake, such as in the story of Ruth and Boaz.  (1468)

When we read a description of or statement about time in the Bible, it goes without being said for us that the author is talking about a linear, discrete, measurable moment in history (chronos). This is problematic, because more often than not the biblical writers are describing kairos, not chronos.  (1555)

The rules in the Bible don't seem to work the way we would like. Paul tells the Galatians, "If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all" (Gal 5:2), and then he circumcises one of them (Acts 16:3). That just doesn't seem right. A rule is a rule is a rule—right?  (1680)

In contrast to the modern Western worldview, in ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality.  (1746)

Understanding the pre-eminence of relationships in the first century has profound implications for how we Westerners interpret the Bible. Instinctively prioritizing rules over relationships can lead us to misunderstand some of Paul's actions and motives. It may even cause us to misunderstand his gospel of salvation by grace through faith.  (1785)

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.  (1809)

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.  (1872)

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"? Paul in Acts 21 does not take the opportunity to correct James's theology. Most of us would not have been able to let it slide. This may be an indication that Paul prioritizes healthy relationship over doctrinal precision (Rom 12:18).  (1895)

Rules apply except when the one in charge says otherwise. Westerners might consider this arbitrary; many non-Western Christians consider this grace. Fees apply to everybody, unless the manager thinks someone really can't afford it. Then he makes an exception.  (1912)

We like to believe that our conception of what constitutes a vice or virtue comes from Scripture. And sometimes it does. But we must be aware that through repetition over time, our culture shapes our understanding of vice and virtue at the unconscious level. Eventually, these values go without being said. And the unconscious cultural lessons often influence the way we perceive certain behaviours in Scripture and can lead us to ignore clear biblical teaching on vice and virtue if it challenges a previously held cultural value.  (1971)

When was the last time a pastor was fired for gluttony?  (1995)

Self-sufficiency, likely a vice by biblical standards, is considered a virtue in the West. Likewise, we add procrastination and plagiarism to our list of vices, even though there is nothing explicit about either of these in the Bible.  (2011)

It is readily accepted in American public discourse, and among many American Christians, that "Freedom is worth fighting for." Jesus didn't think so.  (2024)

Tolerance is clearly not a biblical virtue. God declared to his people because of their tolerance, "I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah" (Jer 44:11).  (2049)

The biblical view of money is complicated. We're not suggesting that it is un-Christian to save. But we are challenged by the assumption of many non-Western Christians that saving in excess could be a vice.  (2082)

We sing the (beautiful) praise chorus, "It's all about you, Jesus." Who are we kidding? It's all about Jesus—as long as it's in a service I like, in a building I like, with people I like, with music I like, for a length of time I like. 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."  (2144)

Compounded by other cultural tendencies, such as our assumption that rules must apply 100 percent of the time to 100 percent of people, our emphasis on me can lead us to have unrealistic expectations of God which, when shattered, can cause us to doubt the truth of Scripture and the promises of God.  (2201)

A better interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11 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.  (2233)

When we realize that each passage of Scripture is not about me, we begin gradually to see that the true subject matter of the Bible, what the book is really about, is God's redeeming work in Christ. God is restoring all of creation (including me), but I am not the centre of God's kingdom work. This is a much greater thing to be absorbed with than ourselves.  (2312)

Proverbs 22:6 reminds us: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (KJV). It likely that some readers have trained up their children properly in the Christian path, and yet that their children have departed from it. When this verse is read individually (and with the Western value that promises must apply to everyone 100 percent of the time), then we have to conclude that you must have failed to train your child properly. If we understand this verse corporately, then perhaps the better application is: if God's people (corporately) train their children in the Christian path, then there will be a next generation of Christians to follow after them.  (2320)

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