Culture and Western Eyes

Every so often I run across a book that challenges me regarding how I study my Bible. Those types of books make me stop and wonder – “How could I have not seen that piece of the puzzle?” One such book is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.

I understand and work by the premise there are certain essential principles when it comes to studying the Bible:

  • Understanding the scriptures were written for us and not to us is foundational.
  • Context, as almost all would agree, is critically important.
  • The need for asking some basic who, what, why, where, and how questions help to winnow the chaff and keep the seed. (This is different from context.)
  • Then knowing there is only one interpretation and we must determine that before we attempt to make application to ourselves or others.

This book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, unwrapped some new tools for the toolkit. The authors contend that understanding culture—both then and now is essential to understanding the Bible. You may be saying “Of course, I knew that.”  But note how the authors frame the subject. Their key point is this; “…The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said (pg. 103).”  Did you catch that phrase “without being said’? The premise unfolds like this; if we fail to recognize that culture/values often go unsaid, we can fail to understand key words, miss significant ethnic markers, and pass over important events that the original readers/hearers of the text understood without needing explanation. However, understanding what goes “without being said” plays a significant part in our full understanding of the text.

They cite a wonderful example from a professor’s college class experiment. The professor had twelve students each read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Then he asked them to close their Bibles and retell the story faithfully to another classmate. On the retelling, all twelve students did not even mention the famine in Luke 15:14. The professor then attempted the same exercise with a more diverse group of one hundred participants. Only six of the one hundred mentioned the famine. In both instances the only thing the students had in common was they were from the United States. He then had a chance to do the same exercise in St. Petersburg, Russia with fifty participants. Forty-two of the fifty mentioned the famine. Why? As the professor notes, “Just seventy years before, 670,000 people had died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants….Based solely on cultural location, people from America and Russia disagreed about what they considered the crucial details of the story (pg.14).”

It was cultural. The Russian people didn’t have to explain why they emphasized the famine—that went without saying. Others instinctively knew. For them, it was a crucial detail of the story.

“The crucial details of the story.” What an important aspect for understanding the truth of scripture. It seems I seldom ask myself what the crucial elements are when studying the Bible. With my Western eyes I think I automatically get it. But I’m learning that I don’t. Too often I see only what I want to see, or what I think I should see, or what I think I need to see. The reality is, I should see more and this book challenged me to do so.

When we study the Bible, we’re not just reading words on a page. In a very real sense, we’re reading history. God’s history. Israel’s history. The church’s history. Culture, is a significant part of everyone’s history. Culture influences not only the text itself, but also our predisposed understanding of the text.

If you’re like me, you’ve got stacks or lists of “to read” books just waiting for your attention. However, if your interest is in understanding the Bible, I would strongly encourage you to get this book and read it. You may not agree with everything the authors say, I know I didn’t. However, the basic tenet of their book is one that should challenge each of us.



Filed under Bible, Bible Study, Ethics, scripture, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Culture and Western Eyes

  1. Lee Bergamini

    Great article this week Norm, too many teachers of the Word leave out that cultural background and we miss the main points. I will be more diligent in read the Word in the future (and more slowly)


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