“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

This post is a review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes in which E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien explore how one’s culture shapes their interpretation of the Bible, in particular, readers in the West. The authors state: “The core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits that 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.”[1] Each chapter explores different cultural issues: social mores, race and ethnicity, language, individualism verses collectivism, honor and shame, theories of time, human relationships, virtue and vice, and ultimately, discerning God’s will. The authors contend that Christians in the West may be misunderstanding the Bible, because they are imposing their own cultural context and assumptions on Scripture, rather than perceiving it from the original frame of reference.

The book is broken up into three parts addressing various cultural issues at different levels of cognizance; Richards and O’Brien use the image of an iceberg as their metaphor. The first part addresses cultural issues that the authors consider plainly visible above the surface, and therefore, the authors assert are least likely to cause serious misunderstanding. The second part addresses cultural issues that the authors view as residing just below the surface yet are visible once prompted to look for them; these less obvious differences are more likely to result in misunderstanding, even offense. The third part addresses cultural issues that the authors consider as almost hidden below the surface; those entrenched issues, in particular, that can lead to missed cultural contexts and faulty assumptions by the reader. Because these biases are subtly hidden, the authors categorize them as the most difficult to detect, and consequently, the most problematic for biblical interpretation. 

While the book is about biblical interpretation, Richards and O’Brien state outright that their primary goal is helping Westerners learn to “read themselves”. Although not dispelling that other cultures possess their own biases, the authors’ main focus is enlightenment of biases they perceive to be prevalent in the West. With experiences performing missionary work in Indonesia, as well as travels to other parts of the world, the authors note that cultural assumptions are held by everyone–to use their words, things that “go without being said.” The authors contend that a Western interpretation of the Bible can no longer be regarded by Westerners as normative for all Christians everywhere, based on a generalization that this view is actually collectively representative of their intended audience.[2] Drawing primarily from anecdotal evidence from their own life experiences, the authors identify cultural biases, or blinders, that they appear to have practiced or perceived or both, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes infers a look into the authors’ own evolution, and that is the lens through which they evaluate Western culture as a whole.


Richards and O’Brien wish to raise cross-cultural awareness among Western Christians in order to correct misunderstandings that result from imposing their own cultural context and assumptions on Scripture. Though the book is about biblical interpretation, their main goal is not to argue for particular interpretations of texts but to help Western Christians “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 cross-cultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read.”[3] One of the illustrations the authors use to convey this point is Peter’s vision in Acts 10:13-14. Three times a sheet full of unclean animals is lowered from heaven and God commands Peter to kill and eat, yet Peter resists on the basis the animals are unclean. A common interpretation is that Peter’s refusal was based on the Law of Moses, which forbade a Jew to eat any unclean creature, but the authors suggest another perspective. Pointing out the fact that what is considered appetizing, or edible even, differs between cultures, the authors suggest that Peter might have been disgusted by the notion of eating any of the animals presented in the same way a modern Westerner would likely be disgusted if confronted with a sheet of puppies and bats and cockroaches. Whereas restrictions against eating pork and shellfish are mere legalities to us in the West, the authors remind readers that first-century Jews were deeply entrenched in cultural dietary mores.[4] The authors are less concerned with what the exchange actually means biblically; their illustration focuses instead on widening cultural perspectives and increase awareness of what may they perceive may be taken for granted when considering Scripture.

Richards and O’Brien are forthright with regard to their point of view as well as the generalizations on which it is based. “The generalizations we make about Westerners will probably most accurately describe white, American males. This is not because we consider this group the most important or even the most representative of a Western worldview. But this is the group that has dominated the conversation about theology and biblical interpretation for the last few centuries.” [5]The authors offer justification for their own generalizations toward the West, despite disavowing applying generalizations as a general practice. The authors present cultural biases, or blinders, as evidenced by their own life experiences, in order that their target audience will recognize and stop applying them to cultures outside the West and subsequently to their interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, readers of this book are presented with the decision whether or not to accept the generalizations the authors take for granted about Western Christians collectively right up front.

In part one, “Above the Surface,” the authors address biases, which they consider to be on surface. These mores, according to Richards and O’Brien, are “accepted without question” and are critical to biblical interpretation, because interpreters may be unaware that they are reading their cultural assumptions into a text.[6] In the same way their illustration about Peter’s vision in Acts intends to present an example of such a surface assumption, the authors assert that American pastors and scholars have historically presumed that Moses’ Cushite wife was a slave based on the fact that Cush is in a part of Africa where people tend to be of a darker skin complexion than would have been typical of Egypt. The authors present an alternative view that Moses had actually married up rather than down, based on geopolitical factors of the day, but they charge that Western believers tend to be blind to this possibility attributing it to entrenched racial assumptions. Perhaps, this assumption was prevalent in the American South where one of the authors states having grown up.

In part two, “Just Below the Surface,” the authors address themes, which they consider to be less obvious and consequently more dangerous to biblical interpretation, specifically, individualism and collectivism, honor and shame, right and wrong, and time. With reference to Western concept of individualism and collectivism, Richards and O’Brien assert that readers in the West tend to read the English word “you” as singular when, more often than not, it is plural in the New Testament. Though the difference may seem minor, the authors contend that it leads to distinctively different interpretations.[7] The authors strain to explain consideration of honor and shame, right and wrong, and their consideration of time seeks to help Westerners see that many cultures conceive the nature and use of time in differently. While in Indonesia, one of the authors sought a carpenter to build kitchen cabinets and sent a messenger to another island designated as where the woodworkers lived. Upon the messenger’s return a week later, the author asked where was the carpenter, and the messenger responded, exasperated, that the carpenter couldn’t be expected to drop everything and just come. A simple cross-cultural misunderstanding, the anecdote intends to help readers appreciate such differences, as well as how alternate views of time can influence the way Scripture is understood. Emphasizing the messenger’s exasperation with the author’s perceived impatience depicts the kind of more serious misunderstandings that can occur. It does appear that the anecdote demonstrates misunderstandings cross-culturally, not exclusive to Western Christians.  

In part three, “Deep Below the Surface,” the authors address issues that they view are least obvious, and thus most dangerous, specifically, rules and relationships, virtues and vices, and the supremacy of the self in Western culture. Richards and O’Brien maintain that in the Bible as well as most world-cultures, relationships are valued over rules in contrast to the West. The authors contrast the West in their consideration of virtues and vises stating that Westerners tend to rank lists, such as the vices and virtues Paul lists in Colossians 3:5 and 3:12-13, in a manner not intended by the biblical writer. The authors support their ascertain by claiming that Westerners tend to view sexual sin as most heinous, while deemphasizing the seriousness of other sins, and that Western Christians tend to emphasize vices and de-emphasize virtues.[8] With regard to self, the authors urge readers to see that Western Christians often read the Bible through the “lens of me.”[9] What is more, the authors contend that Westerners tend to see the purposes and promises of God in terms of individual application citing texts like Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (ESV).[10] The authors charge that Western Christians tend to have a self-centered, rather than God-centered, habit of applying this passage to their lives. According to the authors, “all things” is commonly misunderstood and misapplied by turning “God works all things together for good” into “All things are good.”[11] Although they conclude that “cultural assumption about the supremacy of me is the one to which we Westerners are perhaps blindest,”[12] it is ironic that Richards and O’Brien appear to be projecting their own presuppositions onto the West in order to support a collective argument about self-centeredness and biblical misinterpretation.


Though the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, is about biblical interpretation, the authors’ stated main goal is not to argue for particular interpretations of texts but to help Western Christians “read themselves” read and apply the Bible. What is more, Richards and O’Brien acknowledge outright that their primary aim is not a careful exegesis, but rather to help Westerners to better “read themselves”; however, their caveat does not excuse a casual application of biblical principles. It is difficult to reconcile how one can help people better interpret Scripture outside of careful analysis, especially considering that the authors support many of their points by referencing Scripture. Drawing primarily from anecdotal evidence from their life experiences, cultural biases, or blinders, Richards and O’Brien reveal their own evolution as people, and that is the lens through which they evaluate Western culture as a whole. There is indeed a lesson here for all believers to walk away with, and therefore, I am glad to have read the book! 

[1] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western EyesRemoving Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 15, ISBN: 1522692908.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 22. 

[4] Ibid., 46-47.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Ibid., 144.

[8] Ibid., 181.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

[11] Ibid., 202.

[12] Ibid., 207.

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