How to Remove Our Bible-Reading Blinders
The cover of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (InterVarsity) is striking. Authors E. Randolph Richards (dean of the School of Christian Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University) and Brandon J. O'Brien (an editor at large for Leadership Journal) have us look at a white, male face, gazing outward from behind a printed page, eyes covered by blue-tinted glasses. The message is clear, as is the overarching message of the book: North American evangelicals "read" the Bible—and the world—through Western eyes. This insight is now commonplace in discussions about biblical interpretation in popular and academic circles, as Richards and O'Brien readily admit. Indeed, all human beings come to the Bible with cultural "habits," deeply ingrained patterns of interpreting the world that inevitably shape—and sometimes warp—our interpretation and understanding of Scripture.
Richards and O'Brien want to help Western readers recognize more fully how the eyeglasses through which we view and interpret everything in our environment—Western culture—often influence our understanding of specific biblical texts and themes. To read Scripture well, we must read ourselves and our culture well. Picture an iceberg looming in the distance as a metaphor for our worldview, a key illustration Richards and O'Brien employ throughout their book. How much of an iceberg do we actually see? Well, as the captain of the Titanic sadly experienced, very little. The tip pokes up through the water, announcing its presence to all with eyes to see, but the iceberg's immensity lurks undetected in the depths. Similarly, our perceptions of our own culture's patterns and pressures—"what we wear, eat, say and consciously believe"—is only the tip of the iceberg. "The majority" of our cultural patterns lurk "below the surface, out of plain sight, beyond our conscious awareness."
Richards and O'Brien help us to understand the cultural dynamics Western Christians experience and manifest as they read the Bible. Clearly, our experiences shape our reading of the Bible; we are all wearing tinted glasses, lenses that help us to see some things very clearly but distort our vision elsewhere. Think, for instance, of the parable of the Prodigal Son. When 100 North American students were asked to read the parable and retell it, only six mentioned the famine the prodigal experiences away from home. In a word, American readers tend to be "famine-forgetters," perhaps because most Americans simply have not experienced terrible famine. Compare the response of 50 Russian readers to the very same parable: 42 out of 50 mentioned the famine. Why? The cultural history of famine in World War II has deeply embedded itself in the Russian consciousness, and this cultural lens influences what Russian Christians see in a biblical text.