Westerners like systems, processes and checklists. It’s easy for us to believe that if we just work the right steps in the right order, we’re guaranteed to achieve the right outcome. That’s why so much literature on biblical interpretation focuses on methodology. Many of us believe that if we simply identify the right process for reading the Bible—do the right steps in the right order—we’ll eliminate the opportunity for misinterpretation.
Contrary to its title, this post will not give you three easy steps for becoming a more culturally sensitive reader of Scripture. There are no shortcuts in the process of removing cultural blinders. If you are thirty years old and Western, then you’ve been developing Western habits of thinking and reading for thirty years. It’s unreasonable to expect to reverse those habits by reading a single book or bearing a few principles in mind.
We’re not trying to teach you a new methodology. We’re trying to help you become a certain kind of reader: the kind of reader who is increasingly aware of his or her cultural assumptions. And that takes time, self-reflection and hard work. We’re convinced the reward is worth the hard work.
So instead of a checklist, we want to offer you some advice.
It may be tempting to think that tricky biblical passages can be easily explained by appealing to just one cultural difference. However, in many Bible stories, several different things may go without being said that will affect our interpretation.
Take the story of the three wise men in the accounts of Jesus’ birth for example. In Jesus’ day, several things went without being said. First, people assumed stars know things that mere humans don’t. It goes without being said for us, by contrast, that stars don’t know anything; they are made of hydrogen.
Additionally, it goes without being said for us that God sent the star to the magi—how else would they know of Jesus’ birth?—which the text does not say. It went without being said for the Jewish audience, however, that God forbade seeking guidance from the stars. But we typically ignore this point when we tell the story; it doesn’t fit our values.
Third, we assume that since there are three gifts, there must have been three wise men. Our cultural mores dictate that everybody at the party brings a gift. But this is unlikely. In Jesus’ day, three men traveling with treasure would have been robbed.
Finally, since we misunderstand how God is involved, we assume the wise men’s journey must have been a good thing. After all, God works all things together for good. Therefore, we turn the event into a positive children’s story, even though the outcome was that it nearly got Jesus killed, and it did indeed get a lot of innocent babies killed.
In other words, be prepared to embrace complexity. We may import several presuppositions into any given text. Sorting them out will take some work. Expect it.
Beware of Overcorrection
As Westerners, we think every verse is speaking to us. What the psalmist announced was true:
You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
But it is equally true that sometimes God does not give us victory over our enemies. For the very same psalm asserts:
But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies.
We Westerners have a tendency to overcorrect. We’re all-or-nothing sort of people. For this reason, once we’ve identified an interpretation, application or doctrine as “cultural,” it’s tempting to abandon it altogether. If, for example, you once had a tendency to assume every promise in the Bible applies to you directly, you might be tempted to overcorrect and assume that none of the promises in the Bible apply directly to you. Resist the temptation.
Becoming the sensitive kind of reader we’re hoping to inspire means allowing for nuance and resisting the tendency to make all-or-nothing overcorrections. Let us always trust in the faithfulness of God to keep his promises. But let us not, in the process, take away God’s right to judge a person, group or generation. We should not insist that God’s promises to “his people” must always include every individual, especially me.
Christians often assume a position on an issue based on our worldview and then defend it with great passion as if it were the clear teaching of the Bible. Money management is an important skill to survive in middle-class America. While teaching money management classes in church can be helpful (like teaching conversational English), we should not baptize it as if we were teaching the Ten Commandments. We think, Of course, God wants everyone to save for the future. Yet Indonesian Christian fishermen don’t save. The fish would spoil if you tried to save some for tomorrow. (Interestingly enough, so did the manna in the wilderness; see Exodus 16:4, 19-20.) After all, Jesus told those who worried about tomorrow to consider the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28).
While we don’t want our readers to overcorrect—Jesus didn’t command all his disciples to sell everything they have and give the money to the poor—we want you to be teachable, open to having your presuppositions changed so they conform more closely to the Scriptures. Our hope is that we’ll all be transformed “into [Christ’s] image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). That process requires that we be willing to abandon our old assumptions.
Whether we like it or not, we learn more when we get something wrong the first time than we do when we are right from the beginning. This is true of most endeavors, including interpreting Scripture. Now, evangelicals are serious about the Bible; we recognize there is a lot at stake in interpretation. We’re not asking you to take the responsibility of biblical interpretation less seriously. But we encourage you to allow yourself the space to make mistakes and learn from them.
The more attention you pay to what goes without being said for you, the more natural this sort of reading will become. And as that happens, you’ll discover you’ve been wrong in ways you never imagined! Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Fear only failing to learn from your mistakes.
When we read Scripture alone, we often hear only the interpretations of people just like us. If we want to know when we’re reading ourselves into the Bible, rather than allowing the Bible to speak in its own terms, we need to commit ourselves to reading together.
The worldwide church needs to learn to study Scripture together as a global community. Paying attention to our brothers and sisters abroad can open the echo chamber and allow new voices in. There is danger in allowing a homogenous group to decide together what Scripture means. May we seek to read Scripture with “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
As we do so, 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. Because whether we are “Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” we do not study the Scriptures only for ourselves. We study the Scriptures, to paraphrase Paul, so that the “word of Christ [may] dwell in you richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:11, 16).
Adapted from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien. Copyright(c) 2012 by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com