Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien

I once had an argument with someone over a passage in the Bible. I was trying to get across the meaning of a paragraph and hauled out my handy New International Version (NIV). “I only like the King James Version,” he told me. “Sure,” I said. “Nothing like a poorly sourced book with 500 year old grammar to bring clarity.”

Antiquated language is just one of the problems faced when trying to reach common sense with the Bible, and that’s big enough. What lead me to this book was an article dealing with one of the mainstays of Evangelical Protestants: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) That’s the King James translation and it’s been used as a cudgel to keep the faithful in line. It’s not enough to live a good life, even the hint that sins are being committed has to be avoided. The problem is that “appearance” has two definitions. One is the superficial look of things. The other is the sudden arrival of something. As you look at other translations based on another 500 years of finding various new comparison copies of Bible chapters it becomes clear that the second meaning … avoiding the arrivals of evil … was the intended meaning. They may have understood that in the time of James I but later preachers have used the “appearances matter” version. The NIV reads “reject all kinds of evil.”

This excellent book gives score of examples of ways the Bible is read differently today than it was 2,000 years ago due to modern cultural assumptions that were totally at odds with what the authors, and Jesus through the recorded statements he made, had in mind.

They compare cultural assumptions to an iceberg, where the things we believe without noticing them are the 90% under the surface. Among the things they look at are the differences we as Westerners feel about individualism compared to the adherence to community of many eastern and middle eastern cultures; the differences in perceptions of time and the differences of Greek words for time in the surviving versions of many books in the Bible; the pursuit of prosperity compared to the perception of limited resources and the sin of hoarding more than you need in older cultures; the difference in storytelling; rhetorical patterns that were common in 100 CE that aren’t understood today.

Along the way the authors highlight points we tend to miss in some of the parables and Biblical stories. They also use experiences as missionaries to compare thinking patterns common in the USA to those in countries where even decisions to marry or convert are community decisions.

Along the way they offer altered interpretations of David and Bathsheba, the Agony at Gethsemane, the Prodigal Son, the Widow’s Mite, and many other stories throughout the Bible.

As the book comes to its conclusion they also look at how the drive for individualism, the press for prosperity, and the solipsism of modern life have changed how people approach religion in the 21st Century. In short, that we’ll stick with a church as long as it’s comfortable and convenient and seems to satisfy our personal needs rather than reflecting our duties to God.

The book contains lots of grist for homilies and sermons and would be a natural for anyone pastoring a church, but it also offers important tools for approaching the Bible for anyone of faith. What ancient ideas are we missing? What moral instructions do we pass over? What deeper meanings are we losing with a modern map of how society works? They clearly challenge assumptions they were raised with and share their own experiences freely.