Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On how western individualism distorts our reading of Scripture

In There Is No “Me and Jesus” in the Bible, the Internet Monk continues reviewing the 2012 Richards  and O'Brien volume Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.  Here's an excerpt:
...the authors say, “It is difficult to present the values of a collectivist culture in a positive light to Western hearers.” What is a virtue in one society is often considered a vice in the other. This is extremely important to grasp, for it means that the deep presuppositions and outlooks that form us as individualistic people in the contemporary world do not reflect the cultural ethos represented in Scripture.
We do not, cannot read the Bible accurately until we face up to these blinders.

The authors show how we have westernized and individualized the Christmas story into a tale of a small nuclear family who traveled alone and overcame personal challenges to bring the Christ-child into the world. In reality, it likely happened in the context of a clan of relatives: “The birth of Jesus was no solitary event witnessed only by the doting parents in the quiet of a cattle fold. It was likely a noisy, bustling event attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.”
We imagine Paul in terms of romanticism’s ideal: the lone writer, agonizing over his words and pouring out his heart under God’s inspiration to express profound spiritual ideals. However, “Paul would not have locked himself away in some private room to write. …He more likely would have sat in a public place: the breezy, well-lit atrium of a prosperous home like Lydia’s or in an upstairs balconied apartment. Family and friends walking by would have stopped to listen [as he dictated out loud to his secretary] (ancients read out loud) and to offer advice (it shows you care).”
We routinely ignore the NT testimony to the fact that Paul had co-authors and that he always functioned as part of a team when he was able to do so. Many of the NT epistles were probably collaborative efforts as Paul and his partners discussed the needs of the congregations they were addressing and how to deal with them.
Richards and O’Brien also discuss the radically different perspective that collectivist cultures have about conversion and religious faith. “We are used to our decisions, and thus our conversion, being personal and private affairs.” However, the NT records household conversions. And more collective societies still have this perspective. They cite Duane Elmer, a missionary who testified:
…when he shared Christ  with Asian adults he “was constantly told that they could not make a decision to follow Christ without asking a parent, uncle, aunt or all three.” At first he thought this was an evasive maneuver, a ruse to avoid making the hard decision of faith. Over time he realized that this is simply how collectivist cultures work. People “do not make major decisions without talking it over with the proper authority figures in their extended family.” This is hard for us Westerners to understand. We believe they are simply doing what the authority figure(s) said and not making decisions for themselves. My (Randy’s) Asian friend speaks of his conversion this way: “My father is wiser than I am. If he says Jesus is better, then I know Jesus is better.” My friend has a faith as strong and rooted as mine. His certitude about Jesus came a different way than mine, but it as firm.
One of the most common ways we misread the Bible through Western, individualistic eyes involves our failure to understand the plural pronouns in the NT. In English, we use the word “you” in both singular and plural contexts. Therefore, we regularly misread teachings and instructions which are directed to entire congregations as being spoken to “me” as an individual.
 This is very relevant for Messianic Jews, as Judaism and Jewish culture are in many ways more collectivist than individualistic.


James said...

Certainly a thought that Christians need to hear but it will require a certain amount of education and determination on our part. I've been trying to say more or less the same thing on my own blog over the past couple of days. You simply cannot understand the apostolic scriptures without comprehending the Jewish historical, cultural, linguistic, and midrashic context.

Glenn said...

This reminds me of stories I heard where if a missionary could convince an African or Asian tribal leader to embrace the gospel, the whole tribe would convert. In America we focus solely on the individual and the centrality of his/her decision, but we read of Paul leading a jailer and his entire household (servants and all) into the faith.