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5 Stars Out Of 5
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
October 3, 2015
Excellent read! I did not agree with the authors 100% of the time. Sometimes I perceived their analysis to have gone too far and sometimes not far enough in identifying our cultural 21st century western biases. However, whether I agreed or disagreed, the book was thought provoking and well worth the time I spent reading it. My first introduction to how much our Western modern culture impacts the lens through which we read an ancient Middle Eastern text was over 20 years ago in the book "Light Through an Eastern Window" by K. C. Pillai. (Also a recommended read) This book inspired me to take a fresh look at my own cultural biases and how they impact my Bible interpretations.
Am pleased that evangelical scholars are taking a serious look at the context of our readings, within historical/cultural definitions. The Lord Jesus provided a similar kind of redirect to the people of His day by looking past the pharisaic customs, designed to aid in spiritual compliance, and pointed them to the principals which they'd represented. This book is neither exhaustive, nor complete, but it provides a template, with good questions for the reader as he or she continues his/her reading of scripture. This a good place to start. I have this in a digital version also, and would love to see it completed text by text with historical and cultural background notes for the complete Bible, and linked to electronic Bible resources, so that they match/synchronize as we read. Yes, this is a beautiful beginning. It's time we Christians get off our pious laurels, and dig deeper for the principals behind this beautiful (and divinely inspired) historical collection of books, letters, and predictive revelations that we call the Bible. Careful reading does NOT undermine the authority of scripture. On the contrary, it validates it.
I found this book's title intriguing, and it is not badly written. However, its main premise is troubling: people in 21st century America are very different from people in ancient Israel, so it's impossible to say with any certainty just what "living according to the Bible" might involve. Rather than being a book about how to better grasp the Bible, it appears the authors are distancing themselves from their evangelical roots.
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' book Year of Biblical Womanhood, but here the authors are "scholars" and so their stance on the Bible needs to be taken seriously. 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 and dimwitted. 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 Deep South 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 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 book cannot.
"Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes" is a book about some cultural differences between the "East" and "West" and how this might help us to better understand the true social dynamics going on in the Bible.
They covered topics such as "bad" words, sexual taboos, how money is viewed, what things are eaten as food, ones view of people from different parts of the world or with different skin color, how Hebrew and Greek don't always easily translate into English, the use of idioms, a focus on efficiency versus focus on the human element, the individual making decisions based first on his own desires versus based on the advice of the extended family or village, honor and shame compared to right versus wrong, views of time, that rules should always apply versus rules are good guidelines but have exceptions, patron and client relationships, what a culture values as a virtue or calls a vice, and applying "Bible promises" outside of the original context.
The authors avoided going through the Bible to identify all the major instances of the idea they were talking about. Instead, they hoped the reader would understand the concept and be able to recognize and apply it as they found it in their Bible reading. I've heard many of these concepts in other books, but none of those books went very in-depth.
In this book, the authors did an awesome job of clarifying some concepts that I'd read about before. For example, they did a great job explaining the patron-client relationship. Occasionally, though, I wasn't sure that the authors' take on a verse was correct, but I also wasn't always sure that I fully understood the idea they were trying to apply. Or I could see how it applied in the examples that they gave, but I didn't feel like I could accurately identify or apply the concept while reading other passages in the Bible. I plan to re-read the book and see if that helps solidify some of these ideas.
Overall, I'm glad I read this book. It did bring out some good points about cultural blind spots. But I think I'd only recommend it to people who are fairly familiar with the whole Bible and have already done some study of the Bible-times cultures. The authors tended to refer to Bible events--from both Old and New Testaments--as if the reader was fully familiar with the story as told in the Bible, and it was also easier to understand the point the authors were making if you could think of some other examples that their point might apply to in the Bible.