Recently I wrote an email to a pastor friend, it included these sentences:
“For years I have urged Pastors and leaders to read beyond their usual. We are in unusual times and to be effective today we need to rethink. The reading we do needs to help us understand others – how they view culture, reality, truth. To quote J Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh, ‘truth is stranger than it used to be.’ There is a tectonic plate shifting of culture and western Christianity. It is in this atmosphere that we are called to lead.”
But I want to spin this a little differently than you are imagining – and recommend two important reads for the month of November.
It begins with Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business ….. with the additional subtitle of: How People Think, Lead and Get Things Done.
I’m sitting next to my American wife when I heard Erin introduce the thesis of her book. She gave an illustration of how Brits and Yanks think differently simply because of where we were born! We both laughed. It described us and the ‘differences’ we sometimes bring to our relationship! Her presentation (Global Leadership Summit 2015) led me to buy her book and devour it. A fascinating exploration of cultural differences and how to decode the cultures that are foreign to our own ……. Including my wife’s!
I highly recommend the book. In a shrinking global world this book will help us avoid cultural blunders and the pain/disconnect that usually follows the blunders.
But, if it begins with Erin Meyer’s book it swings to my second book and one of several written on this topic that Pastors should read – MisReading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible @ E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.
Here’s why these books are gaining more and more importance. The idea of cultural blundering isn’t restricted to how we interact with people from other cultures – it can often occur when we are handling a text of antiquity written in a different culture. In our case the Bible. It’s here I think Western Christianity has done a poor job.
Western eyes have contributed much to the understanding of Christianity. Think Anselm of Canterbury, Luther, Calvin, Barth. For better or worse think Schleiermacher and Von Harnack. But in today’s global church we are becoming aware of our need to be more self-conscious about ourselves and the habits of the mind that might blind us to the Bible’s intended message.
At the popular level it was Kenneth Bailey that urged us to see the importance of cultural context. His books Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes; Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes; and, The Cross & The Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants – all are fascinating reads.
Some of the most insightful commentaries I’ve read tackle this aspect of interpretation, Ben Witherington III has written several Socio-Rhetorical commentaries, worth adding them to your sermon preparation.
The topic, though relatively new, is not a fad. It is the pressing question of, “how do we ‘READ’ the text?”
Richards and O’Brien share the findings of Mark Allan Powell and the phenomenon of the Forgotten Famine. When 100 North American students were asked to read the parable of the Prodigal Son and retell it, only 6 mentioned the famine the prodigal experiences away from home. In a word, American readers tend to be “famine-forgetters.” When non-Western Bible students conducted that same exercise, 84% of the students mentioned the famine.
It changes the story. It changes from the Western focus on a rebellious son to a focus on God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from hopeless situations.
How do we ‘read’ the text? And how do we ‘read’ it the way it is meant to be read?
Take for instance the often-used small group leaders opening line “what does the passage mean to you?” Non-Westerners would never use that line. To make the individual Christian the starting point for interpretation and the center of a text’s meaning is problematic. It makes ‘me’ the center in the search for meaning in the Bible.
Richards and O’Brien identify many areas where interpretive problems arise. Areas such as our cultural differences, our race and ethnicity, our language, the individualism of America versus collectivism, honor and shame compared to right and wrong, and our understanding of time.
It’s a helpful read in an important topic. Humans are cultural beings, deeply immersed in the world in which we/they live. It gets us to ask the questions – how much cultural blundering do we do when we teach/exposit the text?
Lets be effective preachers, teachers and leaders. Let’s be diligent cultural students. As Richards and O’Brien lay out as their primary goal – in our Bible reading, lets make sure we have earned to read ourselves!