Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes – E. Randolph Richards & Richard James

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes E Randolph Richards Richard James
Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World by E. Randolph Richards, Richard James
Published by IVP Academic on October 13, 2020

The Bible was written within collectivist cultures. When Westerners, immersed in individualism, read the Bible, it's easy to misinterpret important elements--or miss them altogether. In any culture, the most important things usually go without being said. So to read Scripture well we benefit when we uncover the unspoken social structures and values of its world. We need to recalibrate our vision. Combining the expertise of a biblical scholar and a missionary practitioner, Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is an essential guidebook to the cultural background of the Bible and how it should inform our reading. E. Randolph Richards and Richard James explore deep social structures of the ancient Mediterranean--kinship, patronage, and brokerage--along with their key social tools--honor, shame, and boundaries--that the biblical authors lived in and lie below the surface of each text. From Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to Peter's instructions to elders, the authors strip away individualist assumptions and bring the world of the biblical writers to life. Expanding on the popular Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, this book makes clear how understanding collectivism will help us better understand the Bible, which in turn will help us live more faithfully in an increasingly globalized world.

Thousands of years and vast cultural barriers separate the modern, Western, first-world reader from the situational and cultural context of Scripture. American Christianity, in particular, has been conditioned through centuries of colonialism and civil religion to view Western individualism as a “biblical” model. The debate between individualism and collectivism became forever politically charged with the rise of atheistic Communism in the Soviet Empire.

As the Soviets engaged in a Cold War and became our most feared enemy, American culture sought to highlight about ourselves everything that contrasted the American way of life with the Soviet way of life. American Christianity became hyper-individualized, referring to Jesus as a “personal Savior” and downplaying the collectivistic culture of the East so thoroughly embedded in Scripture. American Christianity misses a lot and misinterprets a lot because of this misreading of Scripture.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes doesn’t engage much with this sociological aspect or much discuss the real and potential implications for such a misreading, and that may be the book’s only flaw. On the other hand, authors E. Randolph Richards and Richard James are both theologians and may have felt that moving outside “their lane” toward sociological and political commentary wasn’t appropriate. It’s a sentiment I understand, but it led to an overall feeling of “Okay, now I see this Scripture and interpret it differently, but what do I do with that?”

The authors give this a cursory overview in Part 3, “Why Does Collectivism Really Matter to Me?” but the irony is that they focus on the me—the individual—and talk little about the effect a collectivist reading would have on the community. Regardless, Richards and James provide readers the theological context for a different reading of Scripture, one that more closely mirrors the way the text’s first readers and the text’s authors would have viewed certain passages.

Part 1 takes a look at social structures familiar to the Old and New Testament audience that are almost wholly unfamiliar to us. The three structures they highlight are kinship, patronage, and brokerage. Of the three, the most amount of time is spent on patronage and its effect on relationships involving power imbalances. You will not read the Old Testament narratives the same way and a lot of previously confusing things will become significantly less confusing when read through this understanding.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes also helps us find a different facet to our relationship with God. Individualist culture focuses on the “personal Savior” or father/friend aspects of our relationship. Richards and James reframe (in reality, replacing into the correct frame) that relationship around patronage and how God serves as our patron. This also ties into the concept of brokerage and places Jesus as God-Man serving as our mediator/broker. In many ways, this interpretation brings theological concepts to life by situating them in the context of actual human culture and relationship.

Further, Richards and James litter the book with examples of current collectivist culture in the East—and see Richards and O’Brien’s Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes for a fuller look at this specific topic—to show how collectivism isn’t a relic of the past or something relegated to “ancient Bible times” but is the living reality for billions across the globe.

The second part of the book discusses the social tools of a collectivist culture, with a primary focus on the positive usage of honor and shame. Shame is almost universally perceived as negative in the Western world, but the East uses shame (positively and negatively) for much different ends. Understanding the honor/shame culture is imperative for an accurate understanding of Scripture. Richards and James go a long way toward redeeming the positive usage of shame and helping readers understand that this culture isn’t just some backward way of thinking that our enlightened minds have grown out of, but a very biblical way to think.

The third part deals with the effect this ancient reading should have on modern readers. As I said at the beginning of this review, I would have liked this area of the book to have been more robust. I’ve been given a lot of great information, but lacking a blueprint for implementation, what am I to do with it? Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is an excellent theoretical and theological foundation, but what I need now is a resource for how to move forward, particularly, how to move forward within a polis (nation) and ecclesia (church) so entrenched in individualist culture.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is the gateway to a whole new (and thoroughly ancient) way of reading Scripture, one more contextually appropriate than is often presented in Western churches. It opens us up to a different understanding of God and our relationship toward him. It’s an incredible book that should be required reading.

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