Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by E Randolph Richards and Brandon J O'Brien.

Recommended. It discusses many of the ideas we have talked about here: the emphasis on family, tribal, community perspectives in the cultures of Bible times, and how they play out now; seasonal time versus chronological time; honor and shame in culture compared to conscience and guilt; language and emphasis revealing different understandings of scripture, which evangelicals often miss; hearing versus reading.  Some of the examples they use are the same as ones I or a commenter has used here.

I wondered briefly if it were not too elementary, and if I couldn't have done nearly as well myself, just writing off-the-cuff. That soon went away.  They extended the standard "cross-cultural considerations for missionaries" anecdotes beyond what I had considered, and also found other topics which had not occurred to me. For example, in their discussion of time they note that the focus on beginning, middle, and end and getting things in their proper chronological order is much stronger in Western cultures than in most others. Yet they mention seasonal time only in passing and focus more on kairos, which has more to do with "the fullness of time," or "in its proper season." The latter is used twice as often as chronos in the NT. They relate this distinction back to scripture verses related to Jesus's coming, death and resurrection, and second coming, giving a clearer idea what the original hearers of scripture would have understood.

I had expected something slightly different, more of a comparison of what Americans culturally assume in reading some Bible events to what Mediterranean, and specifically Jewish assumptions would have been.  There is plenty of that.  But there is also reporting on modern Christians in other cultures (one of the authors taught in Indonesia for years, so that figures prominently) and how they perceive what they read. Sometimes their experience seems closer to Bible culture, sometimes it is only also different and also a block to understanding. The authors do overstate at times, as in contrasting the individualism of American culture with the community/family emphasis of other cultures. The contrast is real, but it is not entire. There is some indiviualism in other places, and plenty of tribal identification here.

There is one repeated error that threatened to undo the whole book for me.  They assert the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in a strong version - the idea that language does not merely reflect how we speak, but determines it.  It is one of those ideas that keeps coming back, impossible to kill because it would be so cool if it were true. There are scraps of evidence of not-entirely-trivial influence of language on thought in very specific contexts, but the bulk of the evidence shows otherwise, even though researchers are often hoping for linguistic relativity to be true. Richards and O'Brien assert that it is a big question mark whether it is cart or horse, and conclude it is a circle.  Well, no it isn't. However, it doesn't much mar the book as they focus on the practical results that languages have different words, different aspects, and different approaches, which illustrate the different thinking of other cultures. Though they continue to assert that these differences go a long way to causing the thinking, it can nearly always be ignored as not changing the sense of their main point.

They spend more time on the me-focus of modern culture, including modern evangelicals, than I would have liked, as I think the discussion is crowded with too many cliches for clarity at present. It was the topic of Sunday's sermon, however, and perhaps it should continue to be a major focus, however weary I am of the repetition. I would also have liked a more nuanced discussion of some examples in the penultimate chapter,  in which they list cultural virtues (e.g efficiency, planning) that are wrongly considered biblical and moral rather than practical; and some which may even be counter to biblical principles, such as tolerance, seeking leadership, or fighting for freedom (as opposed to justice).  I suspect that their intent was to throw these topics out there for the readers to consider on their own, not discuss them in detail.  Still, I felt there was much to be said and I would have liked more.

They close with a better context for verses and sections which we read individually - Jeremiah 29:11Romans 8:28, or with the hidden assumption that it is all about the time we were born into, Matthew 24 - showing that the common interpretations may in fact be badly out-of-focus, even wrong. I was never especially prone to fall into those particular errors, but they do remain common, and it is good they included those.

My takeaway is that I will do all Bible reading with a forced emphasis on hearing it as directed to the church and the community rather me personally.  I don't know how long I will hold to that particular approach. Until the fullness of time, perhaps. I already do this somewhat, but it won't hurt to ramp that up, to hear God's teaching as a member, a part, rather than as a special snowflake. This also looks at first glance to be helpful in discerning when Jesus is talking to an individual and when to a group.


james said...

Looks interesting. I'll have to find it.

james said...

Kindle is handy. Seconding your recommendation. (I'm one of those "third culture kids," with a long standing interest in history, so some of the points were familiar.)

Minor historical quibble--in the not-too-distant past Jews had been a significant presence in the region, and there were enough Jews and proselytes around the empire to make Jerusalem more than just a backwater.

I looked up a couple of his recommended books and got sticker shock.

james said...

And... The Eastern part of the empire wasn't impoverished. IIRC it was the richer half of the empire.