Visual Impairment: A Critique of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

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Introduction

Permeating the cultural landscape of America, postmodernism has managed to infiltrate the church, promoting a privatized spirituality, while simultaneously placing great emphasis on personal experience. Accordingly, the average Christian remains unfamiliar with sound hermeneutical methodologies, preferring to embrace a purely subjective interpretation of the biblical text. Naturally, Christian scholars seek to neutralize such cultural trends, publishing instructive materials for conducting proper exegetical analysis of scriptural documents. This précis will examine Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible,1 demonstrating that while the authors raise several cross-cultural interpretative challenges, they reinforce subjective interpretations by refusing to offer a sound hermeneutical approach.

 

Summary

Drawing upon their cross-cultural missions’ experiences, Richards and O’Brien aim at highlighting inherent challenges westerners face when attempting to interpret the Bible, insisting that “we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading.”2 Unaware that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience, such efforts serve as cultural blinders, effectively hindering the reader from understanding the text accurately.3 Consequently, the reader draws her own (subjective) conclusions, without ever considering what the passage meant to the original audience.4 Expounding upon this point, Richards and O’Brien write,

The core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits that we readers from the West (the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience, and readers in other cultures, see quite naturally. . . . Unfortunately, books on biblical interpretation often do not offer readers an opportunity to identify and address our cultural blinders.5

Attempting to rectify this situation, the publication outlines nine differences (e.g., mores, language, and values) between Western and non-Western cultures that are said to constrain proper interpretation.

Dedicating a chapter to each of the nine cultural differences, the authors provide both personal and biblical examples of each dissimilarity, demonstrating how alternative interpretations emerge as a result of cultural bias. Concluding the publication, Richards and O’Brien offer practical advice aimed at assisting readers in actively identifying cultural assumptions and avoiding misinterpretations due to cultural blind spots.6 In this section, readers receive encouragement to “embrace complexity,” realizing that he is likely to “import several presuppositions unto any given text,” and understanding reconciliation will demand effort.7 Additionally, the authors encourage Christians to study the Scriptures as a global community, suggesting that the intermingling of contrasting worldviews will underscore the cultural blind spots of each.8

 

Critique

Although Richards and O’Brien magnificently convey ethnic differences and the influence such considerations have on cross-cultural communications, their concentration on the reader appears almost postmodern and deviates from sound hermeneutical methodologies.9 Examining the conditions and criteria necessary to achieve a responsible, valid, or appropriate interpretation, hermeneutics provides a prescriptive method of comprehending what a message is endeavoring to communicate.10 Accordingly, hermeneutics inherently requires emphasis be placed on the author (the person attempting to convey particular information) thereby requiring the reader to discern the author’s original intent and desired response. Accentuating this principle, professor Bernard C. Lategan comments,

The root cause for misunderstanding lies in the individuality of the writer or reader. Although language presupposes shared conventions between persons, the unique experience of the individual cannot be expressed adequately through this [written] medium. The receiver, therefore, needs help to reproduce the meaning of the sender [i.e., the author] in his or her own consciousness.11

In other words, the audience must analyze the locution (the written words) to identify the illocution (the intention of the author) and determine the perlocution (the result or outcome envisioned by the author).12 While time, geographical distance, language, and culture may separate the author and his audience—thereby complicating the audience’s ability to discern the illocution and perlocution—hermeneutics actively seeks to bridge this gap, providing a systematic process for ascertaining the author’s message accurately.13

Contrary to the contentions of Richards and O’Brien, misinterpretation is not primarily resolved by merely apprehending our cultural biases and reading the text with people maintaining different worldviews than our own.14 They assert, “we need to remember that all people everywhere have their own cultural blinders. . . . All of us read some parts faithfully and misread other parts. Because of our different worldviews, we often misread different parts. And that’s why we need each other.”15 Although it is true that preunderstandings, presuppositions, and cultural distance hinder our ability to determine the author’s primary intent, reading the text with someone from a different culture does nothing to aid the reader in clarifying the original message. Instead, it merely introduces another subjective interpretation, without giving any meaningful consideration to the author’s objective statements. For example, imagine you place one hundred culturally diverse people in a room, and tell them to read a specific passage of Scripture. Having each person share their perception of the reading is likely to produce a multitude of interpretations. Although this experiment may highlight the impact cultural influence has on translation, it does nothing to identify what the passage means (i.e., the objective information the author intends to convey).

Regrettably, this methodology is exactly what Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes seeks to propagate by merely highlighting nine cultural differences between readers. Providing the underpinnings of the book, Richards’ travels to Indonesia enabled him to recognize how his cultural upbringing affected his reading of Scripture, thus, each of the nine chapters outlining cultural differences between Western and non-Western cultures incorporate an example from his travels.16 However, the authors fail to recognize (or fail to convey) that twenty-first century Indonesia is entirely detached from first century Palestine. Consequently, contemporary Indonesians must overcome time, geography, language, and culture distances which separate them from the biblical authors in the same way they separate Westerners.17

Such considerations are precisely what hermeneutics aims to mitigate, providing a sound methodology and standard for moderating “variable and subjective human factors” which “enable us to arrive at the most likely understanding of the biblical texts’ meaning.”18 Therefore, every reader must employ hermeneutics to achieve an accurate interpretation of the text, regardless of their heritage. Lamentably, Richards and O’Brien believe “all Bible reading is necessarily contextual,” asserting, “There is no purely objective biblical interpretation,” a principle that is evident in each of the nine chapters.19 Accentuating this notion, Richards and O’Brien address cultural mores in chapter one, contending that readers often import cultural traditions into the biblical text (eisegesis) rather than deriving normative actions from the biblical text (exegesis). They write,

Christians are tempted to believe that our mores originate from the Bible. We believe it is inappropriate or appropriate to drink alcohol, for example, “because the Bible says so.” The trouble is, what is “proper” by our standards—even by our Christian standards—is as often projected onto the Bible as it is determined by it. This is because our cultural mores can lead us to emphasize certain passages of Scripture and ignore others.20

Continuing his thought, Richards explains that due to differing cultural mores, Indonesians identify inhospitality as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, whereas Americas typically deem it to be sodomy.21 Concluding the chapter, the authors write, “sin exists in every culture, and everyone sins; but what those sinful behaviors are can vary. Should we dictate that our cultural sins should be considered sins by Christians elsewhere?”22

Responding to this contention, it becomes essential to differentiate between sin (i.e., transgressions against God’s objective moral law, founded in His immutable character), and subjective cultural taboos. While ethical standards of conduct vary between societies, these frameworks often deviate from God’s objective and immutable moral law. Correspondingly, the standard practices of Sodom and Gomorrah were unquestionably in violation of God’s law, and regardless of how people from differing cultures understand the text, God objectively exercised judgment against the cities in response to their transgressions. Moreover, the Scriptures recognize the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as including both inhospitality (cf. Ezekiel 16:49-50) and sexual immorality (cf. Jude 7) and emphasizing one sin over the other may be to miss the point of the story entirely. Therefore, it behooves the reader to identify the definite transgressions of Sodom and Gomorrah accurately, seeking to heed the Scriptural example and modify his behavior accordingly, rather than actively importing cultural norms into the text.

Though the authors insist their view is not “postmodern relativism,” they caveat the statement by writing, “there’s no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts.”23 This qualification, in conjunction with the books subsequent content, clearly emphasizes the contemporary reader’s role in the interpretative process, rather than espousing a systematic approach aimed at discovering the author’s original intent. While everyone approaches the interpretative process with presuppositions and preunderstandings—elements which are prone to contaminate the exegetical process—these factors do not negate the possibility of obtaining the objective meaning of the text (with varying degrees of certainty).24 Accordingly, the reader ought to be concerned with the objective meaning of the text, rather than their own subjective preference.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, although Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes underscores various cross-cultural interpretative challenges, the book reinforces subjective interpretations by refusing to offer a sound hermeneutical approach.25 Richards and O’Brien magnificently convey ethnic differences and the influence such considerations have on cross-cultural communications, yet their concentration on the reader appears almost postmodern and deviates from sound hermeneutical methodologies. Additionally, the advice given in the book’s conclusion appears to perpetuate subjective interpretations (eisegesis) of the Bible, rather than advocating comprehensive exegetical analysis. As a result, readers are left with a greater understanding of their cultural biases, without receiving the necessary tools to derive objective meaning from Scriptural texts. Consequently, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes appears detrimental to biblical scholarship and is perhaps best suited as an appendix to sound hermeneutical instruction—intending to underscore the necessity of exegetical methodologies by demonstrating the impact of cultural influence on unaided interpretation efforts.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
  2. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 11.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 12.
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. Ibid., 212.
  7. Ibid., 213.
  8. Ibid., 217.
  9. Although the authors do not intend to introduce or detail a hermeneutical approach, the premise of the book centers on the proper interpretation of the biblical text—thereby requiring some interaction with proper interpretative techniques.
  10. Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 4; F. F. Bruce, “Hermeneutics,” ed. D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, New Bible Dictionary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 467; Bernard C. Lategan, “Hermeneutics,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 149; William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 40, 42-43; Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 24.
  11. Lategan, “Hermeneutics,” 149 [emphasis added].
  12. Klein, et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 46.
  13. Ibid., 45; Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 24-25.
  14. Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, 216-217.
  15. Ibid., 217.
  16. Richards recognizes that without his voyages to Indonesia, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes would never have come to fruition. See Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, 219.
  17. While some cultures may be inherently closer in distance to first century Israel than modern Western culture, such determinations are impossible without investigating contextual considerations surrounding the author and his original audience.
  18. Klein, et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 45.
  19. Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, 12.
  20. Ibid., 33.
  21. Ibid., 34.
  22. Ibid., 50.
  23. Ibid., 12.
  24. Klein, et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 44-45.
  25. Again, it is important to remember the authors do no intent to introduce or detail a hermeneutical approach, but rather to simply identify cultural challenges to proper interpretation. In this regard, the authors prove extremely successful. However, by merely identifying difficulties in achieving a proper interpretation, without providing a method of alleviating such challenges or reinforcing an objective meaning of the text, the authors inherently perpetuate an unsound interpretative approach.

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