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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 modestythat 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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About the Author
E. Randolph Richards (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is dean and professor of biblical studies in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a popular speaker and has authored and coauthored dozens of books and articles, including Paul Behaving Badly, A Little Book for New Bible Scholars, Rediscovering Jesus, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Rediscovering Paul, The Story of Israel, and Paul and First-Century Letter Writing.
Early on in their ministry he and his wife Stacia were appointed as missionaries to east Indonesia, where he taught for eight years at an Indonesian seminary. Missions remain on the hearts of Randy and Stacia. Randy leads mission trips and conducts missionary training workshops and regularly leads tours of the Holy Land, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. He has served as interim pastor of numerous churches and is currently a teaching pastor. He and Stacia reside in Palm Beach, Florida.
Brandon J. O'Brien (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of Christian theology at Ouachita Baptist University and director of OBU at New Life Church in Conway, Arkansas. He is coauthor, with E. Randolph Richards, of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes and Paul Behaving Badly, as well as the author of The Strategically Small Church.
A senior editor for Leadership Journal, O'Brien has published in Christianity Today, Relevant, and the Out of Ur blog, and has been interviewed by and quoted in USA Today and other national newspapers.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Coming to Terms with Our Cultural Blinders
Part One: Above the Surface
1. Serving Two Masters: Mores
2. The Bible in Color: Race and Ethnicity
3. Just Words? Language
Part Two: Just Below the Surface
4. Captain of My Soul: Individualism and Collectivism
5. Have You No Shame? Honor/Shame and Right/Wrong
6. Sand Through the Hourglass: Time
Part Three: Deep Below the Surface
7. First Things First: Rules and Relationships
8. Getting Right Wrong: Virtue and Vice
9. It's All About Me: Finding the Center of God's Will
Conclusion: Three Easy Steps for Removing Our Cultural Blinders?
Resources for Further Exploration
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read other books which introduce western thinkers to the limits and possible misunderstandings we innocently bring to Scripture due to our culture. (If you haven't, I recommend the books by Kenneth Bailey and Sarah Ruden) This one differs in approach. Most others spell out in detail how our worldview affects a passage or book in particular. This book has a much broader approach. Comparing one's worldview to an iceberg, with those most obvious preconceptions the smallest above-water section, the authors introduce us to concepts of our "group think" that are so much a part of the way we think that we rarely question or even notice them. Highlighting modern political and evangelical instances of this cultural conflict, they then relate these ideas to Scripture. The book is written for the Biblically literate. The authors expect you to know and have had reactions to passages to which they refer. They have also included discussion questions at the end of each chapter for group use and this book is indeed pregnant with great discussion topics. I highly recommend it!
The downside is that now I question all my assumptions. But maybe that's a good thing?
Apparently the person who left the lengthy one star review didn’t actually read the book (objectively). I’d venture to say that they were completely offended to learn that our Western (Read: white middle-class U.S.) culture has affected the way we can read the Bible. If you cannot get around that “offense” then yes, this book can seem skewed or even like an attack on your faith. It is not! What it does it point out how our Western culture has affected what we focus on Biblically and compare it to other CHRISTIAN CULTURES and compares how different the our Biblical focus can be because of this. They did NOT say that “Christians have been getting it wrong for the last 2000 years”. They DID say that different cultures have been focusing on the same scriptures from different perspectives. I’ll use the Sodom and Gomorrah example to prove a point. In the US we point out that God destroyed the cities because of their sexual sin. Yes the sexual sin was rampant but it wasn’t the ONLY sin. The book shares that in other cultures their main focus is the in-hospitality of the people in those cities. Does it mean that sexual sin wasn’t an issue? NO. It is simply pointing out that 1) it wasn’t the ONLY sin, and 2) due to cultural differences, people can focus on different aspects of the Bible than we do as “Western” Christians. That is only one of the many examples this book provides. It is not an attack on my Christian faith. In fact it has encouraged me to read scripture more carefully. It points out things that were common in Biblical times that they took for granted (and left unsaid) that we as different cultures throughout the world have “filled in” based on the culture we grew up in. This book can easily encourage people to begin trying to learn Biblical Greek and/or Hebrew to better understand what was actually written in the Bible. There are words in those languages that we do not have in English and we have done our best to connect the original text to words that are meaningful to us. They even point out the fact that in some cases we can choose what is literally written in the original languages or we can choose to translate what we feel is the “meaning” of the scripture. Can there be danger in this? Sure. We do not live in those times and it can be a real struggle to understand what meaning was intended. There is a reason we have so many English translation options for the Bible. The words they used do not always have a direct correlation to the ones we use in English. This book tries to help us understand that and point out that there are times when things were left unsaid in the text because culturally they understood the meaning of what was being written about at the time. This book simply tries to make us aware that throughout the world Christians have been focusing on different points of view on the SAME truth.
This is an excellent book for cross-cultural workers who may not have had heavy theological training. That's not to say that this book is theologically light or that you won't need a solid Biblical foundation to get a handle on the scripture used. My point is if you've never been to seminary this book will be easy to pick up. If you're in seminary your understanding will just be that much deeper. Both authors speak not only from a solid Biblical foundation, but from practical experience. Both have spent significant time working in other cultures and doing some theological training in a cross-cultural setting. As a westerner who has been living in another culture for over ten years I can also attest to the fact that you will find some of your long-held views of scripture shaken a bit as you begin to read the Bible through the eyes of another culture. That is not to say that the book suggests a purely relativistic view of scripture or that it pushes you to think of Christianity as merely one of the many pathways to God. These authors are still very much traditional evangelicals, so if you're looking for anything other than a traditional evangelical theological point of view you will be disappointed. If you have never left your country (maybe you don't even have a passport), read the book with an open mind. They're not trying to convince you of a "different gospel." They're merely pointing out the concept that the Bible was written within the confines of culture and sometimes that culture doesn't translate well into our own. The authors also explain how we tend to read our own cultural values into the Bible. One example of this is how they present the American value of independence, especially as it relates to maturity. Americans often (consciously or unconsciously) equate Christian maturity with a degree of independence. The authors suggest such a view is, in fact, very UN-biblical and Christianity is really all about a very dependent relationship. If you plan to be a tent-maker in a cross-cultural context and have not been to seminary I HIGHLY recommend this book. If you have had seminary training this will serve as a reminder to crack open those Greek and Hebrew lexicons once in a while before you expound on a passage. If you simply want to deepen your understanding of the Bible, this is still a great book.
Want a book to make you feel good about abandoning the faith you grew up in? This book will suit you to a tee. There was a time when any book published by Inter-Varsity could be counted on as solidly evangelical, even if the reader did not agree with every detail in the book. That time is past. Obviously I-V’s audience (people in their teens and 20s) has changed, become shallower and more conformed to the secular culture, and so has I-V. This is a very shallow book, even sophomoric. A college freshman whose brain has been addled by thousands of hours of video games, YouTube, and semi-literate text messages might think it’s profound. In fact, it’s just profoundly bad. The authors are very provincial, in the sense that they wrongly assume that what was true of their own evangelical churches was true of all. They claim that it was once common for evangelical churches to preach against drinking – certainly true of SOME churches, but by no means all. But aside from being provincial, this anecdote is part of the book’s efforts to convince readers that we are all provincial and that pretty much anything we believe about the Bible is likely mistaken. This is a common theme in “evangelical” (have to use quotes here) books today: Christians have been getting the Bible wrong for 2000 years, but the authors (bless their creative little minds!) are here to show us the truth – or at least to make us skeptical of everything we used to believe. So Sodom and Gomorrah were not (contrary to what ever Christian prior to the year 2000 believed) destroyed because of their homosexual sins. In fact, Christians are (the books says) way too concerned with sexual sins, too concerned about heaven, too eager to distinguish between right and wrong behavior – in other words, this is a harsh critique of Christianity that could easily have been written by an atheist working for the New York Times, someone whose favorite words are “multicultural,” “inclusive,” “nonjudgmental,” “global,” etc. Such a book, judging from other reviews, is welcome to people in their 20s, who fancy themselves “Christian” in some really loose way, but don’t wish to be left out of the hedonistic hookup culture with its sex, alcohol, and drugs (and narcissism), so here are two “Christian” authors giving them the green light, telling them sex is no big deal, “right” and “wrong” are culturally conditioned (and negotiable), this world, not heaven, is all that matters. So, continue to call yourself a Christian and do whatever you please – a delightful message, if you leave out the factor of being accountable to God. In short, what you get in this book is the same temptation Eve got in the garden: follow you own path and make yourself a god, deciding what’s right and wrong. The authors, posing as Christians and publishing the book with what was once a Christian publishing firm, can’t state this message bluntly, so they have to package it in the guise of multiculti relativism – the secular ideology that professors (even some who claim to be Christian) bombard them with daily. Despite the book’s subtitle it is by no means an attempt to “Remove Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.” The aim it is to convince the reader that there is such a culture gap between 21st century America and ancient Israel that we would be quite foolish to try to “live according to the Bible.” This is the same message of Rachel Evans’ extremely silly and shallow Year of Biblical Womanhood, but here the authors are “scholars” or so the cover says) and their stance on the Bible needs to be taken seriously. Richards, the elder of the two, seems to have the Tony Campolo disease, an aging academic writing a book to give his thumbs up to the morality (or lack of it) of the young crowd. O’Brian, with a background at a second-rate Baptist college and pastoring Baptist churches, is using the book to show his supposed sophistication, someone who left behind the provincialism of his upbringing. It’s quite obvious in the book that the authors are embarrassed by their Southern evangelical pasts and thus they bombard the reader with anecdotes designed to make Southern evangelicals look like narrowminded, dimwitted fools. If you find what I just wrote offensive, stop and consider that this “deconstructing” is exactly what these two authors do to the Bible and Christianity. They say our understanding of it is “culturally conditioned” – but the problem with that relativistic approach is that it can be applied to the authors as well. Why should we consider their insights (such as they are) worth listening to, since they too are culturally conditioned? Are their views worth taking seriously – or is the book’s real aim to convince the reader that they are two wise, cool, cosmopolitan types who abandoned the redneck variety of Christianity? This is where relativism and multiculturalism lead to – not much certainty that we can live a life pleasing to God, so enjoy this world and don’t knock yourself out trying to fit those tired old culturally conditioned concepts like “righteousness,” and don’t give a thought to “sin.” After all, these two “scholars” said it was OK. It’s a wonderful message, making no demand on the reader. But it isn’t Christianity, nothing remotely embracing Jesus’ command to “take up your cross daily” and Paul’s challenge to “fight the good fight of faith.” This is a cheap sham version of faith, no real content at all, no ideals to strive for, just the comforting assurance that all the Christians who lived before us were dead wrong about all this sin and righteousness stuff. I wish the two authors would simply drop the “Christian” label and go on the Richard Dawkins circuit, promoting atheism/agnosticism and honestly telling people that Christianity is a sham. O’Brian is young enough to launch a second career doing this, and perhaps Richards is close enough to retirement that he can land some speaking engagements on the atheist circuit without endangering his pension. I borrowed this from our local library system. I did not buy it, and I certainly wouldn’t want either of these two to profit from this very toxic book. I suggest that if you want to (as the subtitle says) “better understand the Bible,” do the obvious thing: read the Bible. That can be challenging, even confrontational, but the Bible can enrich life, and this foolish, shallow book cannot.