The thesis of Misreading Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) is that cultural values, especially those that go without being said, effect the way we read, and even misread, Scripture. Thus, the authors’ goal is to raise the question: what do our cultural context and assumptions cause us to overlook when interpreting the Bible? (15) “The core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits we readers from the West (the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see quite naturally” (15). They hope to offer a positive corrective “by suggesting that there is a discernable pattern by which Western readers read—and even misread—Scripture” (16).
Accordingly, the authors touch on nine differences between Western and non-Western cultures that impact our reading and application of the Bible. Though the book is about biblical interpretation, their main goal is not to argue for particular interpretations of particular texts but to help Western readers read themselves well so that they might read and apply the Bible well. “We want to unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a crosscultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read” (22).
The controlling metaphor of the book is that of an iceberg divided into three parts. Part one deals with three issues that are above the surface and relatively easy to see. Part two deals with three issues that are just below the surface and somewhat more difficult to see. Part three deals with three issues that are deep below the surface and rather difficult to see.
Part one, “Above the Surface,” presses into the issues of mores, race and ethnicity, and language. With regard to mores, the authors, drawing on Webster’s Dictionary, define them as “folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group” (29). For the authors, the fact that mores are “accepted without question” is of utmost importance for biblical interpretation because biblical interpreters may not even be aware that they are reading their cultural assumptions into a text. “What we want you to see is that what goes without being said for us concerning certain mores can cause us to misread the Bible” (48). Conversely, the more biblical interpreters unmask their mores, the better they can read the Bible. As for race and ethnicity, the author’s primary aim is to raise the issue of racism and suggest that it still effects the way we read the Bible. For example, generations of American pastors and scholars have tended to assume that Moses’ Cushite wife was a slave-woman simply because she was a dark-skinned African, when in fact she was likely a cultural elite. Moses probably married up rather than down, but Western readers are often blind to this probability because of our racial assumptions. Finally, with respect to language, the authors assert that language is at once the most obvious and most insidious issue in crosscultural biblical interpretation (88). Thus, they attempt chapter to uncover “a few instinctive Western language habits” (72) and, more or less, they succeed in doing so.
Part two, “Just Below the Surface,” considers issues that are less obvious and therefore more dangerous, specifically, individualism and collectivism, honor/shame and right/wrong, and time. With regard to individualism and collectivism, the authors provide an introduction to the basic differences between Western and non-Western cultures, and thus help their readers understand how this governs the way we interpret the Bible. For example, Western readers tend to read the English word “you” as singular when, more often than not, it is plural in the New Testament. This difference, though seemingly minor, yields very different interpretations of various texts. As for honor/shame and right/wrong cultures, the authors strain to help their readers understand that, by and large, the majority world falls into the former category. Though this issue is difficult for Westerners to comprehend, it nevertheless impacts the way we read the Scripture and must therefore receive our attention if we are to remove our cultural blinders. Finally, with respect to time, the authors help Westerners to see that many cultures conceive the nature and use of time in different, and valid, ways. In addition to helping their readers appreciate these differences, they also try to help them see how alternate views of time can alter the way we understand various passages of Scripture.
Part three, “Deep Below the Surface,” seeks to unmask issues that are least obvious therefore most dangerous, specifically, rules and relationships, virtues and vices, and the supremacy of the self in Western culture. With regard to rules and relationships, the authors’ claim is that, in the Bible as well as most world-cultures, relationships trump rules. That is, rules exist for the sake of relationships and when the two come into conflict, relationships win. Western cultures, they suggest, tend to value rules above relationships but at times they push this suggestion too far. As for virtues and vices, the authors’ aim is to help their readers see that various cultures hold legitimately different views of what is right and wrong with regard to a host of behaviors and issues. This effects the way we read the Bible when, for instance, we encounter Paul’s lists of vices and virtues in Colossians 3:5 and 3:12-13, and assume that we understand what is most and least important to Paul. Finally, with respect to the supremacy of the self in Western culture, the authors press their readers to see that we often read the purposes and promises of God as if they mainly have individual application for me. For example, we tend to read texts like Romans 8:28 to say, “God works all things together for my good,” when the text means something quite different. This self-centered, rather than God-centered, habit of reading often proves destructive as we interpret, teach, and apply the Scripture.
The authors conclude by offering five helpful suggestions for removing our cultural blinders. First, we should embrace the complexity of reading, interpreting, teaching, and applying the Bible. Exegesis is difficult, and the sooner we come to terms with this fact the better. Second, we should beware of the tendency to overcorrect our habits of reading when we learn new principles like many of those provided in this book. Third, we should be teachable by constantly searching our hearts, by listening to Scripture well, and by seeking perspectives other than, and different from, our own. Fourth, we should embrace error, that is, we should make peace with the fact that we are going to make mistakes on the way to becoming good interpreters of the Bible. Rather than allowing the fear of failure to paralyze us, we should instead commit to seeing our errors and learning from them. Finally, we should strive to read the Bible together with others as God enables us to do so. Reading Scripture with our majority world brothers and sisters, instead of reading it for them, will help us to become aware of, and remove, the cultural blinders that cause us to misread the Scripture.
The authors offer Misreading Scripture as a conversation starter, and they emphasize that their aim is not to carefully exegete particular texts of the Bible but to illustrate how their principles might be applied in the process of interpretation. With this in mind, they succeed in raising the cultural awareness of their readers (indeed, unsettling them) by drawing our attention to a number of critical, cultural issues that effect how we read and apply the Scripture. More importantly, they provide a useful framework for pastors, teachers, and leaders who desire to progress in their ability to read themselves, others, and the Bible well.
Where the book falls short is in its exegesis of various texts. Again, the authors are clear that careful exegesis is not their primary aim, but this understandable caveat does not excuse the sloppy application of principles. For example, in the chapter on honor/shame verses right/wrong cultures, they attempt to apply their insights to the story of David and Bathsheba. In essence, their interpretive assumption is that David’s world was an honor/shame world and that therefore issues of right/wrong and a guilty conscience had little if anything to do with the story. But by assuming that the categories of honor/shame and right/wrong are mutually exclusive, the authors misinterpret the story in some troubling ways.
The exegetical problems in this book are so serious, and replete (particularly in parts two and three), that I would not recommend it for local church study groups, unless the group included an able exegete. On the one hand, I am concerned that the authors’ approach might lead people to conclude that they cannot interpret the Bible for themselves since the issues involved in doing so are too complex. On the other hand, I am concerned that the book might lead vulnerable church members to follow the authors in drawing misleading conclusions about any number of particular texts.
Having said that, I do recommend the book for skilled exegetes who are able to sift the wheat from the weeds, for there is plenty of wheat in the pages of this book. Accordingly, the book will aid pastors, teachers, and leaders as they seek to remove their cultural blinders and thus read the Scripture well. It will, at the very least, stimulate a greater level of self-awareness and humility, both of which are valuable commodities for Bible interpreters.