Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes
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Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien

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eBook - ePub

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien

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What was clear to the original readers of Scripture is not always clear to us. Because of the cultural distance between the biblical world and our contemporary setting, we often bring modern Western biases to the text. For example:

  • 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.

Biblical scholars Brandon O'Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O'Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways.

Getting beyond our own cultural assumptions is increasingly important for being Christians in our interconnected and globalized world. Learn to read Scripture as a member of the global body of Christ.

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Above the Surface
I (Randy) was recently in Scotland to visit an American friend who teaches there. A British New Testament scholar was driving the car and telling a story. Even from the back seat, I could see she was still quite flustered and embarrassed about what had happened. She explained that a Baptist pastor and his wife had been visiting from Georgia. As their hosting professor, she had picked them up at the airport. The pastor’s wife was going to ride in the back seat so that her husband could ride up front.
My British friend then stopped the story and exclaimed, “The wife opened the door, said the F-word and sat down in the seat!”
I looked wide-eyed at my North American colleague. He started laughing. “You know what the F-word is, don’t you?”
Pastoral ministry has changed, but I still couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a pastor’s wife would say such a thing. I was appalled. Our British friend was aghast. My friend continued laughing and said, “She means fanny.”
Our British colleague in the front seat grimaced. “Yes. The woman said, ‘I’m just going to park my’—oh, that word—‘right here on the seat.’” My British friend couldn’t even bring herself to say “that word,” since in British usage, fanny is impolite slang for female genitalia. (Our apologies to British readers.)
This story illustrates at least two cultural differences that we’ll discuss in the chapters that follow. One is language. Language is perhaps the most obvious difference between cultures. It’s the tip of the iceberg, the part of worldview that is clearly visible. Whether we are traveling from the United States to France or from Germany to the Philippines, we are well aware of the fact that one language is spoken in our home country, while another language is spoken elsewhere. That is to say, language differences come as no surprise to travelers. Granted, language differences may be more surprising if one travels between countries that share a language (such as the United States and Scotland). We use the word fanny in the U.S., but we use it quite differently than our British friends do. Even so, it is easy enough—once warned—to expect differences of this sort. We discuss language in chapter three.
This story also touches on another source of cultural differences. Mores are the social conventions that dictate which behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate. For example, profanity exists emotionally only in one’s mother tongue. When we learn a new language, we have to learn the naughty words so we don’t accidentally say them and offend our hosts. To us, though, it is just a list. Native speakers may blanch and have a difficult time telling us the words; even spelling the words may rattle them. Missionaries have to be careful or they can easily develop foul mouths. The fact that we know what fanny means in British English but are not bothered by writing it just goes to show that the word itself is neutral. After all, in North America, Fanny can even be a woman’s first name! It is culture that supplies the connotations of a word. This raises an important question. Paul said to avoid “obscenity” (Eph 5:4). But who defines obscenity? We address that issue in chapter one. Then we’ll take on the touchy topic of ethnicity in chapter two.
On the whole, the cultural differences we discuss in this section are harmless enough once we’re made aware of them. They surprise and may even delight us. For tourists, this is often where the fun occurs. A miscommunication due to language confusion, a taxi ride in a country where driving seems to be a contact sport, eating as a meal in a foreign land something that would be a family pet or a household pest in your own: these make for great stories to tell when you return home. In this case, what is true of traveling can also be true of biblical interpretation. Some differences between our Western perspective and that of ancient readers are obvious enough that they don’t result in profound misinterpretation.
Even so, if left unconscious, our presuppositions (what goes without being said) about the following cultural differences—mores, race and language—can lead us to misread the Bible.


Serving Two Masters


Don’t smoke, drink, cuss or chew or run around with girls that do.”
This proverb served as the summary statement for moral conduct for both of us growing up in the American South. To be fair, people grinned when they said it. They knew it was an insufficient statement on Christian ethics. But make no mistake: they were serious. And they seemed to have the Bible on their side. Didn’t Paul say that your “bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19)? Doesn’t that mean we should take good care of them? Didn’t he say, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” (Eph 4:29)? And isn’t it true that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor 15:33)?
The technical term for behaviors like smoking, drinking and cussing is mores (pronounced mawr-eyz). Webster’s Dictionary defines mores as “folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group.” A couple of phrases in that definition are worth pointing out.
First, mores are “accepted without question.” That is, they are views a community considers closed to debate. People don’t think about them as closed to debate; they simply don’t think of them at all. They go without being said. This is because mores are taught to us while we are children and before we can reason them out. I (Randy) remember one example vividly. My wife and I don’t cuss—we were taught not to—and we taught our children not to. Unfortunately, we taught them by never using cuss words. This more went without being said—literally. While we were missionaries in a remote place in Indonesia, the only people our children knew who spoke English were my wife and me. On rare occasions, another missionary would visit us. When our elder son was five years old, an older, very proper, hair-in-a-bun missionary came to visit us. We introduced our son, who very politely said, “Very nice to meet you.”
After she commented on how handsome he was, Josh asked his mom, “May I go outside to play?”
The missionary asked him, “Where are you going?”
Our little angel smiled up at her and said, “None of your d**n business.”
Our chins hit the floor. We had never heard him say that word before (or since). The completely shocked look on all our faces told a five-year-old that this was unacceptable. His mom sputtered, “Josh!” Before we could say another word, he started crying and ran from the room. We communicated effectively this word was not appropriate. When he left, we were in an awkward spot with a missionary leader we had just met. We didn’t even have the luxury of shaking our heads and saying, “The things they learn from their friends!” All of his friends spoke Manadonese. I’m sure the missionary was convinced that the Richards household used spicy language at home.
We spent weeks wondering how our son could have learned a word he didn’t hear us use. Later we were rewatching a movie— there was no English television but we did have videos—and we heard the line, “Where are you going?” to which the hero replied with the now infamous line. Our son had used it exactly like he heard it. Our son had picked up a turn of phrase by watching a movie, which is one way culture is transmitted. My wife and I had passed along a cultural value by our response that such language is inappropriate, which is another way culture is transmitted.
The definition of mores also notes that they embody “the fundamental moral views of a group.” Observing these conventions is considered essential to the ongoing well-being of the community. Break them and chaos could reign. As a result, these values are guarded as if the very fabric of society depends on it. Sometimes it does. We would argue that “protecting the weak and innocent,” an American more (at least in principle), is essential to preserving American culture. More often, though, mores are less permanent, changing from place to place and, within the same culture, over time.
Within the U.S., for example, certain Christian values shift according to geography. In the South a generation ago, many folks considered playing cards to be of the devil. As you moved north, playing cards became more and more acceptable. When you reached Minnesota, you might find bridge tournaments in church.[1] On the East Coast (where tobacco is grown), smoking was okay as long as you didn’t smoke in the pulpit (this is only a slight exaggeration). As you moved west, it was less and less acceptable. When you reached California, smoking was of the devil. (We once heard a West Coast pastor joke that his church condemned adultery because it had been known to lead to smoking.) A family friend from Arkansas sent a Christmas card this year that was a collage of photos, four of which showed the husband or a child kneeling next to a dead animal they had shot. While I’m sure that it seemed very Christmasy to them, folks from other parts of the country might view this as an outrage.
Mores also change over time, causing what is commonly called the “generation gap.” Among conservative Christians in the United States today, we are seeing a shifting more. The consumption of alcohol in moderation, such as a glass of wine with dinner or a pint of beer with your buddies, was anathema for many conservative Christians a generation ago, especially in the South where we were raised. Today growing numbers of young conservatives are challenging this assumption. Now many conservative denominations are generationally split on the issue, with younger people imbibing and older people abstaining.[2]
As the examples above suggest, mores dictate everything from what qualifies as inappropriate language to what one eats and wears and even to whom one should marry and more. For example, the phrase “that was a good dog” spoken by an American suburbanite can mean “one that doesn’t chew my shoes”; by an Australian rancher, “one that herds sheep”; and by a Minahasan, “one that tastes delicious.” Our perspective depends upon what our social mores dictate is the appropriate use—and misuse—of language, the human body or our canine friends.

Serving Two Masters?

Christians face the unique challenge of being squeezed between conflicting mores. On one hand, Christians often adhere to a certain code of conduct without question and regard certain behaviors as essential to the well-being of both the Christian community and the world at large. On the other hand, majority Western culture has its own values that likewise go without being said and which are considered essential to human liberty and satisfaction. Thus, the church and the world often hold contradictory mores. Our options, then, are either to stubbornly resist the infiltration of a cultural more we consider antithetical to a Christian one or to compromise. History is full of examples. In eighteenth-century England and America, to take just one example, the theater was a popular source of entertainment and education for cultured members of society. Good Christians, however, wouldn’t be caught dead in a theater. Religious folk considered theater, with its vivid depiction of human depravity, to be morally corrosive. It excited the passions and threatened the social order. So Christian mores of the time said that theater was off limits for the faithful. For a while. Over time, however, churches began to adapt to theater culture. The dynamic English evangelist George Whitefield preached in a nearly unprecedented theatrical style during the Great Awakening, which led thousands to experience new birth in Christ.[3] Consequently, other preachers, who traditionally read their sermons from manuscripts, adopted more energetic and extemporaneous styles of communication in the entertaining vein of a theater actor. The old meetinghouse seating arrangement gradually gave way to theater seating, with a stage front and center and stadium-style seats facing forward. In this way, Christians were able to capitalize on the appeal of the theater without engaging in the aspects of it they considered questionable. In short, they compromised.[4]
Another reason Westerners are tempted to compromise is because we tend to view the world dualistically. Things are true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. We have little patience for ambiguity or for the unsettling reality that values change over time. We want to know: Is it okay to drink alcohol—yes or no? What about sex—good or bad? Tensions like these are so common in our culture that Hollywood has invented an image for it. When someone faces a dilemma, up pops an angelic image of himself or herself on one shoulder and a devilish one on the other. The symbolism is clear: our choice is always between saintly or sinful, holy or unholy. It is difficult to live in this tension. So we feel happiest when we can satisfy two conflicting mores with some sort of compromise, as our Christian fathers did with theater. This applies, of course, to other mores, including the three we will discuss below: sex, food and money.
Christians are tempted to believe that our mores originate from the Bible. We believe it is inappropriate or appropriate to drink alcohol, for example, “because the Bible says so.” The trouble is, what is “proper” by our standards—even by our Christian standards—is as often projected onto the Bible as it is determined by it. This is because our cultural mores can lead us to emphasize certain passages of Scripture and ignore others.
When I (Brandon) was growing up, pastors in our Christian tradition preached often on the evils of alcohol. We were frequently reminded—from Scripture—that “wine is a mocker and beer a brawler” (Prov 20:1). Thus, we learn, “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” (Prov 23:31-32). It seemed clear enough to me.
So when I visited the house of a friend, a Christian of a different denomination who had recently moved to town from another state, I was shocked to discover that his parents had a wine chiller engraved with a different Bible reference: “Use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim 5:23 kjv)! I began to suspect that my tradition’s view of alcohol consumption was at least as cultural as it was biblical when I spent a semester in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I attended a church of my own denomination. My first week in town, I was invited to a deacon’s house for dinner. He offered me a drink when I arrived.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“Anything you want,” he answered. “We have lagers, ales, stouts, pilsners, sherry, whisky, port . . .”
Our hierarchy of what behaviors are better or worse than others is passed down to us culturally and unconsciously. We might assume that our mores are universal and that Christians everywhere have always felt the way we feel about things. But they aren’t, and they haven’t, as the illustration above suggests. In Indonesia, billiards is considered a grievous sin for Christians. When I (Randy) heard this, I reacted, “That’s silly. We had a pool table in my house when I was growing up.” My Indonesian friends said nothing. Years later, I found out that they commonly thanked God that he had delivered me from my terrible past. In their mind, I had grown up in a virtual brothel.
What can be more dangerous is that our mores are a lens through which we view and interpret the world. Because mores are not universal, we may not be aware that these different gut-level reactions to certain behaviors can affect the way we read the Bible. Indeed, if they are not made explicit, our cultural mores can lead us to misread the Bible. In the story about Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:1-9), it seems very clear to us what the sin of the Sodomites was: sodomy. (We even named a sin after them!) To Indonesian Christians, the sin of the Sodomites is equally clear: inhospitality. They appeal to this verse for support: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). Both groups agree that the folks of Sodom were sinful. But of which sin were they guilty? In th...