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Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes, by E. Randolph Richards and Richard James: A Review

I’ve known Randy Richards for a few years. He has taught at our Middle East Bible School and a few other conferences with which I’ve been involved. I’ve known Rich James (a pseudonym) even longer. They first met at an event I was hosting in Istanbul. I’ve been so excited about this book they have been working on together, looking forward to it for a few years.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is in many ways a sequel, or companion, to the extremely popular Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes which has helped so many Westerners grapple with the Middle-Eastern-ness of the Bible. This book, out this autumn with IVP, is another really great study of the collectivistic cultures which provide the context for the Bible’s witness.

The Subject Matter

Firstly, the subject matter is really important. In their introduction, Richards and James write:

“The Bible is a series of books and letters written by people in collective societies, about the lives of people in collective societies, which they intended people of collective cultures to read.”

Part of the West’s co-option of Scripture has been to take documents written in collectivist societies, with the attendant value system dominated by honour and shame, kinship, patronage, and to force it into an individualist world-view, which sometimes leads to mild misinterpretations, and sometimes entirely misses the point. The Joseph story, which occupies much of the first chapter, is a classic example – read it without the family dynamics, and you end up with the American dream, from the prison to the palace, from rags to riches – you misread, and misread badly.

The Style

Randy is writing as a Biblical scholar of great reputation who also lived cross-culturally in Indonesia for an extended period, his cross-cultural insight supplementing his book-learning. Rich is writing as a seasoned cross-cultural practitioner, who still lives in Beirut and is a keen student of language and culture. This gives the book a real breadth of perspective. In particular, the authors’ non-judgemental approach to cultural difference (something very close to my heart) shines through, giving the book a real winsome tone, and avoiding the pitfalls of Orientalism, when Westerners study the East from a distance, without courtesy or love.

So a mixture of Biblical exegesis and cultural anecdotes makes for a potent combination. For example, Randy tells a story of waking up one morning in Indonesia to find all his furniture gone. Later that evening, a truck pulled up returning all of his furniture – it had been borrowed for a wedding. One of the men explained, “It was early morning, and you were still asleep. We knew you wouldn’t mind.” It is no easy thing to try to help individualists to conceive of group-oriented culture, and some of these stories really help.

Fighting for Nuance

One of the things that makes the book a little longer than similar books is the authors’ commitment to nuance. They work hard to de-bunk a simplistic assumption that modern Middle Eastern culture is the same as ancient Middle Eastern cultures in which the Bible was written. Rather, they argue that contemporary communalistic cultures, in which honour and shame, group identity and family are still highly valued, can provide signposts to challenge individualists, leading to further study of ancient sources. They work hard on the complexities of shame, which is not just the opposite of honour but, expressed by numerous words in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, carries a huge amount of complex nuance.

All of this makes some of the chapters seem rambly, or a little unwieldy, when less diligent authors might have chosen more straightforward definitions. However, as study of the cultural anthropology of the Biblical world enters its fourth decade, and more and more resources become available, this kind of diligence and nuance becomes increasingly important. Some of the chapters, therefore, are not the easiest of reads. But they are hugely instructive.

Patronage and Brokerage

I think the book’s most unique contribution is its approach to patronage and brokerage. Drilling down into the detail of reciprocal relationships, the importance of friendships with strings attached, the implications for the grace and faith language of the New Testament… all of this makes previously opaque Bible moments suddenly become clear. A lot of the findings from the 2018 Patronage Symposium in Beirut are included in the book. For my recap of this ground-breaking conference, see here.

Having read most current material on the subject of patronage, this book is without doubt the most thorough, the most diligent, and, in my opinion, exhibits an understanding that is both scholarly and humble. The final chapter, “Redeeming Patronage and Brokerage” avoids the trap that too many Westerners have fallen into, that of ethnocentric judgmentalism.

For this reason (and I don’t say this lightly), even though the book is written for a Western audience, I have no hesitation in recommending it to my Global South brothers and sisters too.

Somehow, and I don’t know exactly how, the authors manage to capture the beauty and balance of life in a communalistic society, to explain some difficult bits of the Bible, and to equip the reader with tools that might help them read the Bible better, and might even help them navigate life in a Middle Eastern culture.

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time, and I think it will really, really help you.