Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien

Published by IVP Books, November 2012.

Paperback, Ebook, or Audible, 240 pages.

Buy it here.


Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes attempts to shed light on how we, without even realizing it, read Scripture through our own cultural filters. This can result in inaccurate or incomplete interpretations.

The Bible is an ancient text written in three different languages about Middle Eastern nomadic tribes. Most Christians today have very, very little in common with the people of the Bible. We are separated by centuries (even millennia) of time, languages, ethnicity, nationality, culture, customs, government, livelihood, and even religion.

Mores are the unspoken things everyone in a common culture assumes. It is what “goes without saying.” Mores dictate how we read between the lines and fill in the blanks. But what if we’re filling in the blanks wrong? Or completely missing what a certain behavior or phrase or custom actually meant in that time?

“What was clear to the original readers of Scripture is not always clear to us. Because of the cultural distance between the biblical world and our contemporary setting, we often bring modern Western biases to the text.”

from the book cover

If we hope to understand what the Bible means, we must first understand what it meant to the original hearers. One way we can step a little closer to that is by stepping closer to current cultures that have more in common with those of the Bible.

Through personal stories and experiences, the authors reveal ways in which other cultures read Scripture differently than we do and how their perspectives can add layers to our understanding. A few topics covered:

  • Approach to and Prioritization of Time
  • Individualism vs Collectivism
  • Shame and Honor… Right and Wrong
  • Race, Social Hierarchies, and Class Distinctions

Why I recommend it:

I think it’s a very arrogant thing for us to believe that we own the corner on biblical understanding.

Everyone has a culture, whether we know it or not. If you’ve grown up in one setting and have never lived outside that circle, it’s nearly impossible to know what of your customs, teaching, and upbringing is cultural and what is objective or universally understood. When we see something different, something foreign or unexpected, we are forced to think a little more critically. That’s a good thing.

Keeping things simple — What does the Bible say? What does that mean? What does that mean I should do? — we rarely think how other cultures might perceive certain details or fill in those blanks differently. Those details, however, can offer context. And context is vital for trustworthy interpretation.

This book opened my eyes to some details in Scripture that I’d never considered as important. Given an international, intercultural lens, I have a broader, more beautiful view of the stories and the messages God wants to give us.

I highly recommend reading this book with a group. The discussions you’ll have will definitely enhance the content and take-away value.

Caveats & Criticisms:

The authors drew a lot from their personal experiences as pastors and missionaries. This is great, but limited. Most of their examples compared different regions of the US to Indonesia (where one of the authors lived for several years). I wish they had incorporated a broader cultural spectrum. I would have loved to have seen more Jewish, Middle Eastern, and African perspectives included in the text.

I don’t agree with all of their interpretations. In fact, I very strongly disagreed with their chapter on David and Bathsheba. This does not, however, negate the value I received overall from the book and from the majority of chapters.

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