Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Richards and O’Brien’s book entitled Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible focuses on how to read and understand the Bible, but it is not like many other Biblical interpretation books. Others strive to point out issues readers may have with the Bible even if they are interpreting the Scriptures in the standard western methods. This is a review of their book.
Richards and O’Brien begin their book with an introduction to the reader about cultural blinders. They establish the idea that everyone views the world through blinders that have been created by the culture the person was raised in. These views of the world Richards and O’Brien call Mores. Mores are those ideas and concepts that are accepted without question by the person or community. These views are accepted morals within the community that help to establish the idea of right and wrong. They discuss different mores in the west. One area they discuss is the mores that have been established around sex. The example is given from the Apocryphal book the Gospel of Thomas. The story goes that Thomas gave a message about abstinence, to a newly married couple who then decided to follow this moral guideline. To the people Thomas was preaching to, this idea of abstinence seemed like a fine way to follow God, but in America this would not be the case. Richards and O’Brien explain the American culture has taught sex is not something to be avoided in marriage, but something youth pastors place as a goal for teens to focus on to not have sex before marriage.
After the mores, they discuss the idea that of race and ethnicity in the Bible and that of the original readers. In America, colorblindness regarding race has come to be something people strive for. This creates another misunderstanding about the Bible, because when someone takes the racial differences out of the picture they replace the differences with the norms from that person’s race. They discuss the differences in culture, color and speech of people. When the Bible was, written people did not have the colorblindness that Americans attempt to have today. These differences stood out to the original readers; one example they gave is that Jesus was easily identified by His accent. The chapter continues with a discussion about where people are from and how important that was in the days the Bible was written, unlike American culture today.
Richards and O’Brien spend time discussing the words that are used. They write about the figure of speech aspect and local understandings of words that may not be the same as todays understanding.
In part two, they begin the discussion of individual verses collectivist cultures. This section begins with a clear difference between Japan and American ideas of culture. They explained that in Japan people did not see themselves as individuals, but as part of the community and family, including those who have passed away. This idea of a collectivist culture is foreign to Americans. This is because America was built on the idea that one can make a way on their own without others. Richards and O’Brien explain that when the Bible was written most cultures were collective. The early church was a collective society; this can be seen through many passages in the New Testament. One example gave is when Mary and Joseph misplace Jesus when He was twelve. It is common for people to travel as a family; not as a nuclear family of America, but a large family. People who would have been considered related at such a distance in America people would no longer make the connection. They write the way Americans view the authors is probably wrong because of the misunderstanding from a individualist point of view. Paul most likely dictated with someone writing for him and helping him formulate the words and concepts.
They continue to dissect the idea of individualism in the understanding of the church and the promises of God. Richards and O’Brien spend a great deal of time focusing on the idea of the word “you.” In English, the word “you” is singular and plural. Because of this the Bible is translated often with the word you, but in the original language the word was you plural. This is not a translation issue, but it becomes an interpretation issue when readers with an individualist worldview read the “you” as singular. This creates a self-focused idea of the promises of God. They explain that many of the promises people cling to as “just for them” are for the church collectively. Another misunderstanding from individualist is their idea of the Body of Christ. They point out that even in a picture of the church that is clearly collective, readers often attempt to find their “part” of the body. They finish their discussion about individual and collective societies with a chapter on the difference between an honor/shame and a right/wrong society. This also creates misunderstandings of the Bible, because it is hard for a society focused around black and white, wrong and right to understand why the characters in the Bible did something, because they were a honor and shame culture.
In part three, Richards and O’Brien discuss the idea of right and relationship. Then vices and virtues and what that meant to people writing the Scripture and how those differ to the vices of today. One example they gave is that of teeth. In American culture having good teeth is important. It is a virtue, but in other cultures people do not care about teeth. When Americans view the stories of Jesus there is an image they create for what Jesus looked like and He most likely have nice teeth. This is because the Bible is a virtues book, so everyone in it must have the same virtues, unless they are bad characters.
The last chapter before the conclusion is another individualist misconception. The idea that the Bible is for the person reading it. Many Christians in America simply want a road map to the plan of God. However, the plan of God may not be for them, but for the church collectively. People read their situation into the text; in doing this they are misunderstanding the text.
Richards and O’Brien conclude the book with a chapter explaining there is not a quick fix for these misunderstandings. They give an example about trying to figure out a step by step plan for becoming more culturally aware, but realized that was not acting cultural aware. They concluded that a person must work toward identifying the mores and trying to not place them on the Scriptures.
Richards and O’Brien are both men who have experiences both sides of the cultural issues discussed in the book. They give examples of living with the American individualist mindset in a collectivist culture. This has opened their eyes to the possibility that the way Christians in American view the Bible could be wrong simply because of the subconscious ideas they were raised with.
Throughout the book they are clear in their perspective of peoples understanding of Scripture. They give examples from their own lives and relate it to the Biblical text. They make it clear that they are not fully right or fully wrong. The perspective of people needs to be willing to look at other ideas and realize they may not be right. The authors seem to do this throughout the book.
Richards and O’Brien give a lot of examples from their lives and from Scripture to illustrate their points. Much of their evidence is on the basis that westerners view the world through an individualist point of view. They spend time in personal reflection with regard for the collectivist and individualist mindset. When others commented on his individualist mindset Richards did not simply dismiss the questions, but pondered them and searched the Scripture and Biblical histories to find the answers. Using the historical and cultural knowledge of the Bible gave them a better understanding of the cultural and how the basic mindset in the Bible is different than people in the west. I believe this is an adequate understanding and basis for their argument of misunderstanding Scripture.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible is well written. I believe the flow the book worked well. The authors were able to establish a basis of why a westerner may misunderstand the Bible. Starting with mores makes the reader begin to introspectively consider if there are things they unconsciously believe because of their culture and upbringing. Once the reader has begun to look inward Richards and O’Brien begin discussing racial differences creating a basis to build from. This progression helps the reader come to accept the possibility they may be misunderstanding because of their individualist mindset.
I found this book to be very interesting. It brought a new perspective to me. The idea of individualism and collectivism are not viewpoints I had considered in the past. One area that stood out to me while reading was the understanding of “you” throughout the Bible. In the past, I have viewed the word “you” as talking to me. After reading, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, I realize that was because I have been raised in an individualist society. A culture that everything is about me and the world must revolve around me. This is opposite to the teachings found throughout the Bible. In Acts the early church shared everything and worked together. The mindset I have had was to share if I can and give to the church my ten percent. This is because the underlining individualist mindset, hampered my ability to truly be selfless in giving. This book helped me in my understanding of Scripture and myself. I believe this book would be a benefit to many American Christians. This book can help to open the person to the idea that they may be misunderstanding Scripture because of their cultural background. Using this book to make people think about their unconscious reasons for doing things would be a benefit to the American church.


Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J O’Brien. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

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