Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes (1)

images-1A few weeks back, I gave a brief preview of a book that I’ve been reading through lately. The book is entitled Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, co-authored by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, and it gives a good introduction to the discipline of hermeneutics, or helping us better grasp how to interpret, understand and apply Scripture.

In specific, there are 9 chapters which consider 9 different blinders we might have when interpreting Scripture. And, so, I want to post an article exploring the particulars of each ‘blinder’.

Firstly, I need to remind us that the book is broken down into 3 sections, mainly likening these blinders to the picture of an iceberg. With an iceberg, one can see a bit of the ice mountain poking out of the ocean, but below the surface lies a massive structure, mostly unseen by the human eye. And, so, the first 3 chapters deal with 3 issues that are more easily detected. So remember this, as some of these issues early on won’t seem too earth-shattering.

Chapter 1 considers the topic of mores (pronounced mawr-eyz). Basically, these are the fundamental moral values of a group that go without saying. These moral values wouldn’t need any detailed explanation, as they are simply given within a particular people’s setting.

Such mores are to be found within the Bible as well, mainly because the biblical text was written to particular people within a particular culture and setting. Certain things were already clear to them, but not to us.

When approaching Scripture, we as westerners, including myself, can forget that we find ourselves in a far-removed world, both in culture and time. Our worldview is quite different from those of the ancient near eastern world in which Scripture was written.

Knowing this, Richards and O’Brien remark:

Christians are tempted to believe that our mores originate from the Bible. We believe it is inappropriate or appropriate to drink alcohol, for example, “because the Bible says so.” The trouble is, what is “proper” by our standards – even by our Christian standards – is as often projected onto the Bible as it is determined by it. This is because our cultural mores can lead us to emphasize certain passages of Scripture and ignore others. (loc 285)

Author, Brandon O’Brien, relates a story within his own denomination where the evils of alcohol were regularly preached. Coming myself from the southeastern Bible-belt of America, I can relate. Of course, most Christians now recognise that drinking such beverages is not sinful in and of itself. It’s actually a celebrated act in Scripture at times (as seen in the midst of the Old Testament feasts or at the wedding at Cana). But we can still easily project our own cultural mores onto Scripture.

But the whole issue of drinking alcoholic beverages is only one matter to consider. Richards and O’Brien follow-on by examining the two topics of sex and money within the Bible:

Our cultural mores tell us sexual modesty is necessary while economic modesty is considerate: preferable but not necessary.

In other words, one of the ways Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible is by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty (loc 401)

Of course, both authors (and I, as well) believe the Scripture teaches on areas of sex and sexuality. Yet, for instance, particular dress-code statements (e.g. 1 Tim 2:9-10) come not to challenge those wearing ‘revealing’ clothes, but rather to encourage economically-conscious dress.

Another example the authors give is that of food. We might be disgusted by the idea of certain Asian cultures eating rat or dog meat. It makes us nauseous and we consider such people uncouth. Even more, it’s possible that we import a lesser morality upon such people for their eating habits. I still cannot fathom how horse meat is a specialty in Belgium. I don’t think I’ve yet tasted it (though I’ve had goat meat since being here, cooked by Kenyan friends).

The same stands true in biblical times, but from another angle. We’d be easily disregarded if people knew our western love for certain foods. For instance, a well-known story would be that of Peter’s vision. We find a sheet containing ‘all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds’. In one sense, I think many of us today would simply say, ‘Come on, Peter. Get over yourself!’ But this was deeply settled within the ancient Jewish culture. Richards and O’Brien suggest this would be similar to the Lord giving us a vision of a sheet carrying puppies, bats and cockroaches. How could you?!

There are all sorts of cultural givens within a particular group of people. It’s easy to miss those in the Scriptural context because they are distant from us in both time and culture. Plenty of our given mores might not hold water from a biblical context. For example, Richards states that, in the church he grew up in, it was completely unacceptable for a deacon to smoke, but that same person could be racist. Of course, decades later, we would argue that any form of racism is unacceptable. Still, such a more can and does exist in our world. And it wouldn’t be too difficult to find some groups who do not anathematise smoking.

There could be all types of mores – unspoken moral values – that we believe are Christ-like, but just might not be. Or there are certain mores that might seem truly Christian by some groups, but these same mores are completely unacceptable amongst a group of people on the other side of the world. Again, think about clothing, economics, politics, food, etc.

This isn’t an exact science and, thus, we must stay humble as we study Scripture in helping to form our moral values.

What are some other mores that we need to be aware of as not being inherently Christian? What are some that might be acceptable in our culture, but could possibly be identified as non-Christian?

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3 thoughts on “Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes (1)

  1. I’m not sure this problem of understanding biblical cultural mores versus our own cultural mores is really so relevant.

    I think the problem is we look to the Bible as setting up ANY standard for mores. Beyond the mores that were defined FOR ISRAEL during their time in the wilderness (which then continued forward through tradition), the Bible is NOT about establishing mores and/or morals. “Correct” morals flow from the Spirit via the love of Christ IN us, not any written law, rule, suggestion, mores, etc., etc. we may think we see defined in the Bible. We continue to focus on the nitpicking of what’s “right” and “wrong” when the bigger picture has SO little to do with that. Our desire to know “good” and “evil” goes right back to the Garden and their eating from the tree. Remember Adam and Eve were naked and UNASHAMED until they KNEW it was “bad”, and God was NOT happy about that – not that they were naked (obviously that was FINE with Him), but that they KNEW (felt guilty) about it.. We don’t NEED to know good from evil, which only either leads to unrighteousness and guilt, or self-righteousness and pride – both conditions which hinder us from being used by God. All we need is to “know” (have faith in) Christ IN us and flowing THROUGH us – a process that will slowly change our morals to however the Spirit sees fit within each life (which will be different for every person of each culture) – and results in a position of complete dependence on God who can then freely use us. However, ultimately, God can use ANYONE – drinker, smoker, homosexual, foul-talker, porn-watcher, WHATEVER type of “sinner” you want to name, and STILL accomplish HIS mission through them to bring the love, message and mission of salvation and discipleship to others.

    So, while this subject is intellectually interesting, from a cultural, anthropological aspect, it’s not really a crucial topic for understanding the primary message of the Bible – Christ for us and in us.

    • Ken –

      You are correct. This topic on mores doesn’t seem too shocking. I should have put in a reminder about how the book is broken down into 3 sections and these 3 sections are likened to an iceberg. So I have updated paragraphs 2 and 3 above to say this:

      In specific, there are 9 chapters which consider 9 different blinders we might have when interpreting Scripture. And, so, I want to post an article exploring the particulars of each ‘blinder’.

      Firstly, I need to remind us that the book is broken down into 3 sections, mainly likening these blinders to the picture of an iceberg. With an iceberg, one can see a bit of the ice mountain poking out of the ocean, but below the surface lies a massive structure, mostly unseen by the human eye. And, so, the first 3 chapters deal with 3 issues that are more easily detected. So remember this, as some of these issues early on won’t seem too earth-shattering.

      • Sounds good, Scott.

        And I wasn’t trying to belittle your post. I understand the reason for breaking up and presenting the book like it is.

        My point was kind of unrelated to the point of the book. The book makes a good point.

        But as a whole, I still think many people look at scripture as more of a rule book rather than a love story. This somewhat plays into that thinking.

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