Quotes about the Bible
#2 – E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien
In other situations, what goes without being said for us can lead us to miss important details in a Bible passage, even when the author is trying to make them obvious. Mark Allan Powell offers an excellent example of this phenomenon in “The Forgotten Famine,” an exploration of the theme of personal responsibility in what we call the parable of the prodigal son.” Powell had twelve students in a seminary class read the story carefully from Luke’s Gospel, close their Bibles and then retell the story as faithfully as possible to a partner. None of the twelve American seminary students mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14, which precipitates the son’s eventual return. Powell found this omission interesting, so he organized a larger experiment in which he had one hundred people read the story and retell it, as accurately as possible, to a partner. Only six of the one hundred participants mentioned the famine. The group was ethnically, racially, socioeconomically and religiously diverse. The “famine-forgetters,” as Powell calls them, had only one thing in common: they were from the United States.
Later, Powell had the opportunity to try the experiment again, this time outside the United States. In St. Petersburg, Russia, he gathered fifty participants to read and retell the prodigal son story. This time an overwhelming forty-two of the fifty participants mentioned the famine. Why? Just seventy years before, 670,000 people had died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants in Powell’s exercise. Based solely on cultural location, people from America and Russia disagreed about what they considered the crucial details of the story.
Americans tend to treat the mention of the famine as an unnecessary plot device. Sure, we think: the famine makes matters worse for the young son. He’s already penniless, and now there’s no food to buy even if he did have money. But he has already committed his sin, so it goes without being said for us that the main issue in the story is his wastefulness, not the famine. This is evident from our traditional title for the story: the parable of the prodigal (“wasteful”) son. We apply the story, then, as a lesson about willful rebellion and repentance. The boy is guilty, morally, of disrespecting his father and squandering his inheritance. He must now ask for forgiveness.
Christians in other parts of the world understand the story differently. In cultures more familiar with famine, like Russia, readers consider the boy’s spending less important than the famine. The application of the story has less to do with willful rebellion and more to do with God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from hopeless situations. The boy’s problem is not that he is wasteful but that he is lost.
Our goal in this book is not, first and foremost, to argue which interpretation of a biblical story like this one is correct. Our goal is to raise this question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook a famine, what else do we fail to notice?
• E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible