Book Review – Richards, O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

Book Richards OBrien Misreading Scripture with Western EyesThere are two authors of this book. Randolph Richards is a missionary who served in Indonesia for a number of years. Brandon O’Brien is a church historian who has worked in Europe. They state at the beginning of the book;

One of our goals in this book is to remind (or convince!) you of the cross cultural nature of biblical interpretation. We will do that by helping you become more aware of cultural differences that separate us from the foreign land of Scripture. (p12)

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 219
  • Difficulty: Easy-Popular
  • Topic: Biblical, Hermeneutics
  • Audience: Mainstream Christians

They have a certain target audience in mind – White western males.

We hope that Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes will offer a positive corrective by suggesting that there is a discernible pattern by which Western readers read—and even misread—Scripture. Becoming aware of our cultural assumptions and how they influence our reading of Scripture are important first steps beyond the paralysis of self-doubt and toward a faithful reading and application of the Bible. (p16)

I enjoyed reading the book. It was easy to read and it didn’t take long. But I didn’t get as much out of it as I hoped. I think over the years I had already picked up several of their main points. However there is always something to learn.

Contents – Overview

  • 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
  1.      Captain of My Soul: Individualism and Collectivism
  2.      Have You No Shame? Honor/Shame and Right/Wrong
  3.      Sand Through the Hourglass: Time
  • PART THREE: Deep Below the Surface
  1.      First Things First: Rules and Relationships
  2.      Getting Right Wrong: Virtue and Vice
  3.      It’s All About Me: Finding the Center of God’s Will
  • Conclusion: Three Easy Steps for Removing Our Cultural Blinders?

Main points

Most of the chapters start with some sort of story to highlight the main point and finish with a few questions to get readers to consider the points they have made.

icebergThroughout the book they use an analogy of an iceberg. The majority of our perspective goes unnoticed under the surface.

At the beginning they highlight an unfortunate practice many are likely to do when trying to interpret silences in scripture.

When a passage of Scripture appears to leave out a piece of the puzzle because something went without being said, we instinctively fill in the gap with a piece from our own culture—usually a piece that goes without being said. When we miss what went without being said for them and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture. (p13)

In the first few chapters they speak about how it is easy to assume what our culture believes is right and wrong with what happens in the bible. This is not always the case. They call these mores.

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.” (p29)

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. (p34)

Richards and O’brien then speak about how our culture views sex, money and food. No surprises here.

Next they write about race and ethnicity. I have a belief we are all prejudiced to varying levels. They highlight various sections of the bible where this comes into play. They write about inferiority, slavery, speech and church factions.

Next the speak about the difficulties of translation. Words in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek do not necessary have equivalents in English. We can loose something in the translation.

Richards and O’brien are familiar with the Greco-Roman patron-client relationship and how it should influence our understanding of grace and faith in the New Testament.

Some words have special meanings when they are paired with other words. In the New Testament, for example, the word charis means “grace.” Pistis means “faith.” What we didn’t know until recently—what went without being said in Paul’s day—was that those two words together described the relationship between a patron and his or her client. In the Roman world of the New Testament, business was conducted through an elaborate system of patrons and clients. (p82f)

This kind of relationship has recently come to the fore with John Barclays book, Paul and the Gift.

In the next few chapters they start going under the surface of the water. They compare collectivistic and individualistic cultures.

Western societies are, by and large, individualistic societies. The most important entity in an individualistic culture is the individual person. The person’s identity comes by distinguishing herself from the people around her. (p96)

Collectivist cultures are very different indeed. In a collectivist culture, the most important entity is the community—the family, the tribe or the country—and not the individual. (p97).

Collectivistic cultures (Hebrew, Greek) are guided by honour and shame. Individualistic cultures (Western) – guilt.

Things work differently in shame cultures. In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. (p116)

Richards and O’brien are good to explain both have their merits. But westerners are sometimes oblivious to the honour and shame issues which are present in the biblical text.

Cultures can have a different perceptions of time. Westerners cram many things into their day. We are used to set meetings by the minute and expect people to arrive on time. Richards and O’brien highlight that this is not always the case in other cultures. Sometimes events start when enough people come or the most important people. The event starts not by the time, but by the people. The concepts of kairos and chronos are discussed.

In the next few chapters Richards and O’brien consider the effect of the enlightenment on our perception of relationships in terms of rules and laws and our understanding of God.

No longer was God assumed to be the sustainer and maintainer of the universe. He was now a distant deity whose relationship to creation ceased after the event of creation. He left the world to operate according to rules and laws, which he prescribed. (p159)

They will stress the influence on the patron-client relationship again. As you can see they have returned to this point. It is important to them, particularly for interpreting Paul. They tend to see our relationship with God as more familial than forensic. Both concepts are there, but they put more stress on the familial.

In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time. Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries. The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1:9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken. (p166)

In regards to their understanding of the parton-client relationship, in my mind I think they are echoing aspects of the New Perspective interpretation of Paul.

One of their later chapters is titled: ‘It’s all about me’. One of their best points in my mind has to do with our common tendency to read and interpret scripture as if it is always talking about ourselves. No it isn’t.

Western Christians, especially North American Christians, tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us—to each of us and all of us individually. More to the point, we are confident that us always includes me specifically. And this may not be the case. (p193)

They give a few helpful scriptural examples of how this tendency can lead to misreading scripture. They make these two suggestions at the end of the chapter.

First, beware of thinking of the Bible in terms of “what this means to me.” Remember, the Bible means what it means.

When we’re talking about the relevance of the Bible in our personal lives, we should ask, “How does this apply to me?”

Remember, too, that you should try to answer the question “What did this passage mean to the original audience?” before asking, “How does this passage apply to me?”

Second, to avoid deriving a strictly individual interpretation of a biblical passage, ask yourself how you might apply the passage differently if you interpret it in corporate terms, rather than in individual terms.

Practice asking, “How does this passage apply to God’s people?” (p208f)

In the last chapter they give general suggestions for interpreting and applying scripture better.


The book is great for making westerners more aware of their blind spots when interpreting scripture. I said I had picked up a fair amount of what they said already before reading the book. Yes that is true, but I’ve been reading, studying and teaching the bible for a while now. This book would be really good for people who haven’t done much academic study or reading.

As I said the book is easy to read. The stories and questions capture our attention and ram their points home. As a whole I heartily recommend this book for general church attenders.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2016. All Rights Reserved.