Another Look: A Horse of a Different Color

Another Look: A Horse of a Different Color

This post was originally part of a series in which we reviewed this book:

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien
IVP Books (2012)

Misreading Scripture is one of the most important books we’ve reviewed and recommended here at IM. I heartily encourage you to read it. It will change the way you approach the Bible.

• • •

“That is a good horse,” said the man as he watched it pull the farmer’s plow with strength.

“That is a good horse,” said the girl at the circus as she watched it do a series of amazing tricks.

“That is a good horse,” said the guide as he pointed the novice rider to one that he recommended for the trail ride.

“That is a good horse,” said the rodeo rider as he picked himself up and brushed himself off after having been thrown to the ground.

“That is a good horse,” said the bettor as he went to pick up his winnings after the filly he chose won the race.

“That is a good horse,” said the owner of the horse farm as she walked up to the prospective buyer who was purchasing a special gift for his daughter.

“That is a good horse,” said the guest at the table of his Kyrgyz hosts who had just finished the meal he had been served.

Five words. The same five words. And yet, five words that convey entirely different meanings because they are spoken in five different contexts and cultures.

Is the horse good because it is a dependable worker? Is the horse good because it is entertaining, having been trained to do unhorse-like things? Is the horse good because it is gentle with new riders? Is the horse good because it provides a top challenge for a skilled rodeo rider? Is the horse good because it runs fast? Is the horse good because it would be a suitable gift? Or is it good because it tastes good?

Is it a good farm horse? circus horse? trail-riding horse? rodeo horse? racehorse? pet? meal?

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien remind us that reading is not as simple as we imagine, and that reading a book like the Bible is an even more complex task.

We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite.

…Another way to say this is that all Bible reading is necessarily contextual. There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. This is not postmodern relativism. We believe truth is truth. But there’s no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts.

One of my favorite examples the authors give involves the familiar story of the “Prodigal Son.” They cite a professor who did an experiment in reading this parable from Luke 15. He had students in his small seminary class read it and then retell the story to a partner. Not one of the students mentioned the “famine” in Luke 15:14 which precipitated the son’s return home. Finding this omission intriguing, he repeated the experiment in a group of one hundred people. Only six mentioned the famine. All of the participants were from the United States.

On another occasion the professor had the chance to repeat the experiment with a group of fifty students in St. Petersburg, Russia. Forty-two out of fifty mentioned the famine! The authors point out that Russians had experienced several famines in their recent history. It was a part of their life and something with which they were familiar, whereas those from the United States had no such background.

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 the money. But he has already committed his sin, so it goes without being said that the main issue in the story is his wastefulness, not the famine.

…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.

The authors’ point is not that one of these interpretations is “right” and the other “wrong.” Rather, they only want to suggest that we read the Bible out of our cultural context. We can’t help but do so. We need to be aware of this and do all we can to factor in our cultural blinders when we advance our interpretive conclusions.

However, there is a problem according to Richards and O’Brien — the most powerful cultural values that affect us are those of which we are least aware. It’s like an iceberg. We are able to identify only some of our presuppositions and conscious assumptions. However most of these powerful, shaping influences are below the surface, out of our sight. “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said,” claim the authors. We are fish that take little notice of the water in which we live. When we read the Bible, we tend to fill in any “gaps” of understanding with pieces from our own cultural perspectives — subconsciously.

The horse that you see may be a horse of a different color to me. And neither of us may really understand why.

29 thoughts on “Another Look: A Horse of a Different Color

  1. I’d go with the ‘Stang or the Stude.
    (Growing up around California Rod/Custom Culture showing thru…)


  2. Western Culture is a three-way descendant of Roman, Greek, and (Messianic) Jewish sources.


  3. Your professor must have read the similar example in The Joys of Yiddish where they do the same thing to the sentence “Two tickets to her son’s concert I should buy?”


  4. “That is a good horse,” said…

    This same subject came up with my writing partner (the burned-out preacher) last week regarding his continuing fight with Ken Ham. That from The Lost World of Adam & Eve; in the Genesis 1 refrain “God saw that it was good”, the original meaning of “good” in that context was PURPOSE, not PERFECTION. That “it” was doing what it was supposed to do and being what it was supposed to be.
    Like my answer to that book/movie title A Dog’s Purpose,
    “Isn’t a dog’s purpose to be a dog?”


  5. However, there is a problem according to Richards and O’Brien — the most powerful cultural values that affect us are those of which we are least aware.

    Just like what drives so much historical research up the walls:
    The necessary context and infrastructure that nobody bothered to write down because “Everybody Knows That”.

    P.S. Big Earth Ponies in that pic…


  6. A Christian comedian once wondered why no one has that Jeremiah verse hanging on their living room wall like we do some other scriptural mottos.


  7. I’ve been leading a study of Isaiah over the past year. Great book. Very vivid descriptions at times that need little analysis. And your analysis, Burro, is spot-on. The themes are clear, consistent, and timeless.


  8. The medieval ages in Europe were highly religious, and for the most part highly UN-literate.

    I think the stronger correlation is between the decline of religion in the west and the increase in wealth, especially at the expense of the environment and the rest of the world.


  9. I’ve often wondered if there is some relationship between the decline of religion in the west and a decline in literacy. After all Christians are a people of the book and if few read anymore then what becomes of Christianity? Even under the best of conditions the Bible is a hard read. How many can read Chaucer, or Milton or Dante without voluminous notes? The Bible is much harder than that. And so many of the ideas and concepts found in the Bible are purely literary and cannot be translated into another medium, especially one as shallow as video.


  10. I am reading aloud, and yes, it makes a difference.

    In the pleasant midcentury prose of the original RSV. If they had translated the RSV from the Antiochian text instead of the critical, it would be perfect.


  11. The Bible preceded Western culture….

    The Roman Republic, during which the concept of the West arose, preceded the New Testament, and there were significant cultural antecedents from the Hellenistic world that Rome conquered which are all but indistinguishable from early Western culture. If you’re including the New Testament when you talk about the Bible, it is fair to say that not only did Western culture precede it, but it had a profound influence on the Bible/New Testament’s language, thought-world, and religious concepts; if you’re talking about the Bible minus the New Testament, the Old Testament had little influence on Western culture or its immediate antecedents before the formation of and/or apart from the New Testament.


  12. I had a professor who used the sentence “He said she was beautiful” to make the point of differing interpretations, in this case how each word is stressed.

    HE said she was beautiful. (Not me, I didn’t say that; I don’t want to get in trouble with her husband.)
    He SAID she was beautiful. (But… what was he really thinking?)
    He said SHE was beautiful. (But her sister? Not so much.)
    He said she WAS beautiful. (But that was 30 years ago.)
    He said she was BEAUTIFUL. (Probably the simplest and most literal interpretation.)


  13. “This”

    + 1,000


    great themes of Isaiah; sinfulness, punishment, exile, release, redemption, all of this set in language that earned the prophet the name of “the bard of Israel” are the meat of the book, and require little strenuous unpacking.

    Technology has changed vastly. The human heart? Unchanged.

    Scripture is not concerned with the change of technology; it’s about the human heart.

    You called it Burro


  14. ” The LORD reached down from above and took hold of me;
    He pulled me out of the deep waters. ”

    (Psalm 18:16)


  15. ‘Something’ comes through sacred Scripture that points people towards God in a ‘culture-free’ way that is more tied in with our humanity itself.

    So what has happened with ‘the Bible’ and ‘culture’ and human interpretation is horrific in some cases:

    the ‘you have to obey authority regardless’ interpretation ‘because it’s God’s Will’

    the ‘wife will submit ‘graciously’ to her husband’ because the Bible Says . . . and all the abuse that follows

    the Bible Says slavery is allowed

    the Bible Says . . . . . . . when really, all we have is that prejudiced culturally-infected slant of a reader with an agenda more suited to satan than to Christ

    But still, I do believe that there is something of the ‘holy’, the ‘sacred’, in the Scriptures which comes through the millenia with such force that it can affect an individual and re-direct their life towards the better Way;
    and that when this happens, it may be that time a broken man in a hotel room picks up a Gideon Bible and opens it and what he reads . . . . it is as though Our Lord touches him as Our Lord encountered Saul on the road to Emmaus . . . . an unearthly force that transcends time and place and space and culture and reaches that place within a drowning human being where God reaches down and pulls them out of the deep and they live and they KNOW something just happened to them for which there is no earthly explanation . . . and the EXPERIENCE is real to them and stays ‘with them’ and they are no longer who they were before the encounter

    All those running around saying ‘the Bible says’ who have agendas and political plans are NOT what I’m talking about here:
    I’m talking about how the sacred Word can penetrate the human heart when it is broken and heal it in a sacramental experience of ‘the holy’ . . . . there are people who witness to these encounters and I believe them


  16. ” I would be better served by a more vivid imagination and a more poetic temperament ”

    try reading the Book of Jeremiah out loud before breakfast and use your really loud voice:

    Jeremiah, chapt. 4,

    “BREAK UP YOU FALLOW GROUND . . .do not sow among thorns.
    Circumcise yourselves to the Lord AND TAKE AWAY THE FORESKINS OF YOUR HEARTS”

    (author Kathleen Norris recommends that this kind of reading will get your blood moving for sure)


  17. > and infer that the Western way is not just different, but wrong

    Well, it may be the “wrong” way to read the text.

    Recognizing the different way different languages and cultures use pronouns is profound in itself.


  18. > This is a more subtle way of treating it as a magic book.


    My basic principle for reading Scripture, at this point, is that I very likely have no idea what it is saying. 🙂


  19. The Bible preceded Western culture and, probably more than any other text, shaped and influenced it. Once again, shaming the glove for looking like the hand.

    I just finished rereading the book of Isaiah. Maybe an extensive understanding of early Iron Age Middle Eastern history would have been helpful in parsing out the themes, but this illuminates only what I think of as the exterior of the book, and it’s least important part. The great themes of Isaiah; sinfulness, punishment, exile, release, redemption, all of this set in language that earned the prophet the name of “the bard of Israel” are the meat of the book, and require little strenuous unpacking. I would be better served by a more vivid imagination and a more poetic temperament


  20. My standard example of cultural cues: You are reading a modern novel set in the present day United States. You are introduced to a character as he drives up. He is driving (a) a Prius; (b) a Camry; (c) a Miata; (d) a Lamborghini; (e) a 1968 Ford Mustang; (f) a 1953 Studebaker sedan; (g) A Ford F150; (h) a Ford F350… and so on. In each case, assuming competent writing, the vehicle he is driving immediately tells you something about this guy. You instantly internalize this information, probably without consciously noticing it.

    Now imagine a reader a century from now reading this classic of early 21st century literature. Will this reader pick up this cue? Probably not, unless he is a student of early 21st American culture. So what do to? There is no mystery here. This is what annotations are for.

    We see this all the time. Read a novel written in the 19th century and a character drives up in a phaeton. You can probably figure out pretty easily that this is a horse-drawn carriage of some sort, but is it more like that Miata or a F150? This is difficult to impossible, without a little help. (The correct answer is “Miata.”) Reading older novels without good annotations can be a slog when encountering bits like this.

    Many Christians treat the Bible as a magic book. This occurs in more obvious or more subtle ways, which come in and out of fashion. Using the Bible for divination, for example, is not currently fashionable, though it has been in the past. Treating it as if it has no context–as if the ordinary reader can dive in and easily discern the plain meaning? This is a more subtle way of treating it as a magic book.


  21. I couldn’t disagree with your assessment more, Stbndct. But that’s ok. Certain authors and their approaches hit people in different ways. I think you’re just taking their observations too personally, as judgments of western culture being “wrong” as you say. The question is how the more ancient and eastern minded cultures produced the Bible and how our western milieu keeps us from appreciating what it’s saying. The “right” or “wrong” judgment is really beside the point. In one of the comment threads for the original posts, I wrote:

    I don’t think I’m saying one culture is better than another in some kind of absolute sense — both have good and bad points. The question is: how do we translate and apply instructions and teachings that come from one type of culture into another. Most of us do not ask this question because we do not understand the cultural disconnect we have when reading the Bible.

    We’ll just agree to disagree on this one.

    There were at least three areas in which we noted benefits from this book, in addition to what I’ve said in today’s post:

    1. Understanding differences in our notions of time between our culture and the kinds of cultures that produced scripture:

    2. Understanding differences in our notions of “shame” between our culture and the kinds of cultures that produced scripture:

    3. Understanding differences between the kind of collectivist cultures that produced the scriptures and our individualistic culture:


  22. I often remember of the parable of the parable of the Famine and The Prodigal. But less regarding Scripture these days and more when observing the growled confrontations of a particular American demographic with those of not-that-demographic Americans; the profound inability [refusal?] to see Resource Scarcity in other than Moral terms.

    Important book, as Evangelicalism faces a meta-meta-problem.


  23. I was in the group that reviewed this book
    My men’s group was excited to dig into this one, but quickly grew disappointed and annoyed. The title is a misnomer. While there are a few examples of how folks with a Western way of thinking sometimes misunderstand specific passages of the Bible, that’s not what this book is about. These authors have a very clear agenda of how they think Christianity should be more collectivist, and it’s cultural relativism gone too far. Over and over, they talk about how other cultures do things (most prominently Indonesia), and infer that the Western way is not just different, but wrong. They’re welcome to think that. And some of it is interesting. But it doesn’t support the premise of the book. It’s really too bad, because we were looking forward to being challenged and shown how some passages can be read in a new (old) light. But there’s actually very little scripture quoted in the book. More often, the authors make a claim that scripture says ‘such and such’, but then don’t back it up, or they quote some verses that clearly don’t mean what they are inferring. Instead, they give more examples of how other cultures do things, as if that backs up their premise of what they claim the Bible says. If anyone is misreading, it’s the authors. They should read the title of their book.


  24. While I agree we have to tread carefully when interpreting texts written in vastly different cultures and earlier times, I’m skeptical about just how accurate is our knowledge of the time and culture the Bible/New Testament was written in. I think some of us trust too much in the ability of our Western semi-scientific discipline of history to really plumb the zeitgeist and mentality of people of earlier times and cultures. It’s important to proceed with as much humility, and modesty, as we can muster; to the degree that in doing that we chastise the triumphal attitudes of interpretation that have come down to us, we are on a good path; but if we end up in a place of assumed new certainties, based on implications from evidence that are at best often arguable, we shall have exorcised one demon only to make room for several others.


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