Review: Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes

Editor Eric Black reviews "Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes" by E. Randolph Richards and Richard James.

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Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World

By E. Randolph Richards and Richard James (IVP Academic)

What would it be like to read the Bible with eyes that see? To be able to read stories that have shaped Western civilization and 2,000 years of Christianity with clearer understanding? It might be like listening to your favorite song after knowing the back story for the first time. All of a sudden, new layers of meaning would open to you. Or it might be like putting on glasses for the first time and seeing what you were missing all along.

This clearer understanding doesn’t come from some kind of secret knowledge, like a newly discovered Gnostic gospel. It comes from reading the Bible as its first readers would have read it, with all the taken-for-granted culture in mind. Two thousand years later and at least one culture apart, we need a new prescription to be able to see all the Bible has to offer. E. Randolph Richards and Richard James have written that new prescription, if we will take up and read.

To that point about the significance of understanding culture for proper biblical interpretation, the authors assert: “Language and culture are usually two sides of the same coin. It is very important to learn the ways insiders in a culture speak about their culture. While it can be confusing—because they assume you know what is going (on) without being said—it is usually the best way to understand how culture really works.” Just as learning a modern foreign language is about so much more than vocabulary and grammar, so is understanding the Bible. Richards and James seek to fill in some cultural gaps sometimes lacking in learning Hebrew or Greek or reading biblical commentaries.

Richards is provost and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University and has several books to his credit. James is a pseudonymous co-author and cross-cultural trainer and church planter in the Middle East. Richards brings academic expertise and James brings lived experience to their project.

Together, they peel back the film of Western individualism that has accumulated over so much modern biblical study and interpretation. They enable Western readers to see the structure and role in collectivist cultures of family, patronage, brokerage, honor and shame in the ancient Near East. Each chapter provides examples of these cultural factors at work in the biblical narrative.

To elaborate on just one of the above: For the majority of the world for the majority of history, family has been larger than the stereotypical nuclear unit made of 4 1/2 people. Family in these contexts is a community itself, complete with those who serve and work alongside the family. It grows through birth, marriage and/or adoption, and the reasons for this growth are more practical than romantic. The father and firstborn son are responsible for the welfare of the entire family and therefore are afforded authority and resources others are not. The authors offer a compelling description of how collectivist family structures affect the reading of Scripture in ways individualist readers don’t readily see.

Chapters also begin with firsthand stories of interactions with collectivist cultures, such as those in modern Bedouin communities and Papuan families. These stories bring to the present the cultural underpinnings of the ancient biblical world and shed helpful light on misunderstood biblical stories.

It would be hard to overstate the importance Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes can have for preaching and teaching, as well as for all readers of the Bible. A reader could spend a lot of time in the first part alone and come away with a wealth of new understanding.

Eric Black, executive director/editor/publisher
Baptist Standard

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