Book Review: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Authors Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien seek to aid Westerners in understanding how cultural bias shapes their understanding of the Bible. While the authors do provide some useful lessons, the work falls short of its goal with its many comparisons to contemporary Asia and the implicit influence of secular philosophies.

In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Dr. Richards and Dr. O’Brien highlight several common interpreting errors Westerners, specifically Americans in the United States, make when interpreting the Bible. As stated, their goal was “to help [the reader] become a certain kind of reader: the kind of reader who is increasingly aware of his or her cultural assumptions” (pg. 212). To accomplish the task, they divided Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes into three parts, with each part exploring three sets of common pitfalls American readers may fall prey to.

The three parts follow the analogy of going “below the surface.” The first part, “Above The Surface,” explores Western mores, race, and language, highlighting many cultural differences Americas take for granted. Continuing with the analogy, the second part is titled “Just Below the Surface.” It explores individualism, the differences between honor and shame societies, and different cultural understandings around the perception of time. The final part is “Deep Below the Surface,” which delves into rules and relationships, virtue/vice, and God’s “will for me,” which ties back into the earlier theme of individualism found in part II.

The conclusion provides five general guidelines to help readers work through cultural assumptions. They are embracing complexity, overcorrection, being teachable, embracing error, and reading together (pg.7). Despite the title of the conclusion, “Three Easy Steps for Removing Our Cultural Blinders,” the authors purposely avoid providing a “step-by-step” process for the reader to use, as they are trying to develop “a certain kind of reader” who does not follow a process but is increasingly aware of “of his or her cultural assumptions” (pg. 212).

I. Authorship

The book was written by two authors, Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien. Richards earned his Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a professor of biblical studies in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is also known as a popular speaker and has authored dozens of books and articles throughout his career. Early in his ministry, he and his wife, Stacia, were missionaries to east Indonesia, where Dr. Richards taught for eight years at an Indonesian seminary. Brandon J. O’Brien earned his Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is the Director of Content Development and Distribution for Redeemer City to City, which supports church planting efforts in global cities.

Both authors ascribe to Christian Theism and have dedicated their lives to ministry. Each has worked in global missions, which shaped much of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes content.

II. East Asia Comparisons

There is heavy influence based on the author’s experience working in ministry in Asia. The authors support several of their ideas by contrasting American culture with the East. They do acknowledge that “making generalized statements about Eastern and Western cultures is ill advised,” however, they felt that they “must” make these comparisons and the reader should keep “in mind that [the] authors are well aware that a term such as Eastern” is “almost too broad to be helpful” (pg. 19). In many cases, despite their best efforts, the illustrations used were not helpful from the standpoint of interpreting Scripture.

It would have been more valuable if the authors contrasted the U.S. with Ancient Israel or the 1st-century Mediterranean world. Asia is different from the U.S. in many ways, which may aid Americans in reflecting on their culture, but Asia is not the biblical world. The authors acknowledge that “Anecdotes aren’t hard science” and that many of the things highlighted “went without being said for the Bible’s original audience” (pg.20). This may be true and would have been better communicated if the authors had skipped over Indonesia and gone straight to the world of the biblical authors.

Much of the text seemed more appropriate to missionary work or evangelism. For example, the authors were communicating that Asian cultures don’t always accept the idea of heaven as enthusiastically as Western Christians. They state that “we superimpose our image of leaving ‘this world of woe’ onto the Christian story, we turn the gospel of good news into bad news for people like the Khmus” (pg.93). This certainly has a missionary application but not necessarily an interpretive application. Jesus clearly states that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36, ESV), and that He is leaving to prepare a place for the members of His kingdom (John 14:1-3). Dr. Richards and Dr. O’Brien did not mention these passages but compared Greek mythology and the River Stix to the illustration of leaving this world after death. While Greek myths may have influenced the Western understanding of Scripture, Jesus’ own words that His kingdom is not of this world cannot be discounted. This fact may well make the Khmus people uncomfortable, but this is a lesson for missionaries, not Westerners attempting to understand their Bibles better.

III. Secular Philosophy

The authors used language throughout the book that implied an influence from secular philosophy, specifically Standpoint Theory and Intersectionality, which were born out of Feminism during the ‘90s. For example, the authors mentioned that they “speak as white, Western males. In fact, we always speak as white, Western males” (pg. 20). To highlight that they speak “as white” is to accept the underlying premise of Standpoint Theory, or that all individuals of a certain type (race/gender) have access to hidden knowledge not accessible to others. To state that they speak “as white, Western males” is to acknowledge a “standpoint that shapes the white subject’s understanding of both self and the social world,” which is an error (Owen, 2005, pg. 205). Not all people share a common experience due to immutable characteristics such as skin color.
Additionally, they made the following comment in the chapter on race, noting that the chapter was specifically directed “to white male Westerners” (pg. 54). This was an interesting comment, as ethnic partiality is not a problem only affecting males, but women may also be guilty of racial animus as well. This statement and the one noted previously imply influence based on the feminist idea of intersectionality, or that oppression exists within society along points of intersection. For example, intersectionality holds that women are oppressed by men but that black women would have two intersections of oppression as a woman and a woman of color (Crenshaw, 1991, pg. 1242-1243).

Both Standpoint Theory and Intersectionality are contrary to Scripture and are also a Western bias uniquely originating from the American academy. First, Standpoint theory is a type of Ethnic Gnosticism where special hidden knowledge is revealed only to those based on their race (Baucham, 2021, pg. 93-94). Additionally, as Neil Shenvi highlights, “once a white pastor endorses the view that he — as a white male — is blinded by his own white supremacy, unable to properly understand relevant biblical principles due to his social location,” it will inevitably shape his interpretation of Scripture and lead to the very misinterpretations that Dr. Richards and Dr. O’Brien seek to avoid (Shenvi, 2021, pg. 50).

IV. Conclusion

While Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes can offer insight into common mistakes Americans make when reading and interpreting Scripture, I think there are better texts suited to introduce Western Christians to the idea of cultural distance. Most books on biblical interpretation will discuss the distance between our culture and the culture of Ancient Israel and the 1st-century Greco-Roman world. Many quality study Bibles will also offer insight into the importance of researching the historical context of passages.

While the authors do provide some useful lessons in aiding a believer to better understand Scripture, the work falls short of its goal with its many comparisons to contemporary Asia and the implicit influence of secular philosophies. First, the authors attempt to contrast the contemporary U.S. with modern Asia and then lead back to the ancient culture found in Scripture. While it may be a creative attempt to make the material relevant, it often reads more as a text to aid missionaries setting out for Indonesia, not Americans seeking to understand the time and place of the Bible better. Second, the influence of secular philosophies, such as Standpoint Theory and Intersectionality, bring Western bias into the hermeneutical process. The authors’ admission of viewing the world as “white” and “male” is in itself a Western bias. For these reasons, American Christians should look for another resource to examine and become aware of their cultural assumptions.

Bibliography

Baucham, Voddie. Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe. Washington: Salem Books, 2021.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241-1299. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039.

Owen, David. “Towards a Critical Theory of Whiteness.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 33, no. 2 (2007): 203-222. https://doi.org.10.1177/0191453707074139.

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Shenvi, Neil. “Sociology As Theology: The Deconstruction Of Power In (Post)Evangelical Scholarship.” Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology 3, no. 2 (Fall 2021): 46-51. https://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/eikon_issue6_web1.pdf.

Published by Tyler Tennies

Finding Life in the Word is my place to share thoughts on life. I write every day and my page is a good outlet to write about topics I’m interested in.

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