What Goes Without Saying…

I just read a book that has transformed the way I read the Bible. I think you should read it too.

As a white, North American woman, I have cultural biases—and most of the time I’m not even aware of them. I have a certain way of thinking about time—as a series of consecutive events. I live in a society that places a strong emphasis on individuality. We value efficiency, not procrastination, and leaders over followers. Other cultures view these (and other) things quite differently.

Every one of us brings our own worldview to Scripture. For example, we in the West tend to see the Gospel in terms of guilt and innocence. Those who grew up elsewhere (including the Middle East) might view it in terms of honor and shame.

misreading-scriptureOf course, we want to read and interpret Scripture accurately. How can we learn to see past our cultural bias and understand what the Biblical authors really had in mind? An excellent first step is to get your hands on a copy of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien.* (I was able to download the ebook from our local library.)

Reading this book has helped me realize how extensively my western worldview colors my assumptions—or, as the authors put it, “what goes without saying.” There are things in every culture that everybody knows. The publisher’s blurb gives three examples that might help explain what this means. I quote them here:

  • When Western readers hear Paul exhorting women to “dress modestly,” we automatically think in terms of sexual modesty. But most women in that culture would never wear racy clothing. The context suggests that Paul is likely more concerned about economic modesty—that Christian women not flaunt their wealth through expensive clothes, braided hair and gold jewelry.
  • Some readers might assume that Moses married “below himself” because his wife was a dark-skinned Cushite. Actually, Hebrews were the slave race, not the Cushites, who were highly respected. Aaron and Miriam probably thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying “above himself.”
  • Western individualism leads us to assume that Mary and Joseph traveled alone to Bethlehem. What went without saying was that they were likely accompanied by a large entourage of extended family.

See what I mean? My post last week (about Jeremiah 29:11) is one result of this new understanding.

The authors are quick to point out that there are no “three easy steps” to spotting and eliminating our western perspective. They do, however, provide a number of helpful tools that will help—with practice. While I still have a long way to go in eliminating this bias, at least I now know some red flags to look for.

One side benefit of reading this book is that I’m eager to put these tools to use. I can’t wait to get to my daily Bible reading, to see what I’ve been missing. What important truths have I been blind to all these years?

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I guarantee you’ll be hooked by the time you finish the introduction! (I’ll give you a clue—it explains Rev. 3:15-16 in a totally new light.)

* The authors are highly qualified to write on this topic. E. Randolph Richards, PhD, is dean and professor of biblical studies in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He’s written a number of other books, many of which I’m now interested in reading. Perhaps even more significantly, he and his wife were missionaries in Indonesia, a non-western culture very different from ours.

Brandon J. O’Brien (PhD, Trinity Divinity School) is assistant professor of Christian Theology at Ouachita Baptist University and a church pastor. He too has been widely published. I particularly want to read his book, Paul Behaving Badly (IVP, 2006).

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