Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Culturally complicated story

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Kenneth E. Bailey is an introduction to applying cultural, linguistic, and what I'd call historical, anthropology to the Bible. It's full of insight for anyone interested in making sense of what our culture's ancestral text meant in its own time -- and even what it might mean in our time to people whose societies are not "Western" -- I think we can substitute "European" for that label. Richards, a professor of Biblical Studies at a Baptist university, had his understanding of the Bible blown up while serving as a missionary in Indonesia. Bailey, a Presbyterian theologian, contributes much linguist insight.

They explain what they are doing this way:

You are probably familiar with the language of worldview.

Many people talk about the differences between a Christian and a secular worldview. The matter is actually more complicated than that. Worldview, which includes cultural values and other things we assume are true, can be visualized as an iceberg. The majority of our worldview, like the majority of an iceberg, is below the water line. The part we notice -- what we wear, eat, say and consciously believe -- is really only the visible tip. The majority of these powerful, shaping influences lurks [sic] below the surface, out of plain sight.

More significantly, the massive underwater water section is the part that sinks ships! Another way to say this is that the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. It is very hard to know what goes without being said in another culture. But often we are not even aware of what goes without being said in our own culture. This is why misunderstanding and misinterpretation happen.

They apply this perspective to a broad range of Biblical subjects. Some of this seems obvious: our social customs are not those of the people in Biblical stories nor do we operate with the same understanding of "racial" and ethnic categories. (Think Cushites or Galileans...)

Some of their topics require understanding of far more difficult cultural differences. We are individualistic; unless we are consciously working on a wider view, we think what matters supremely is each of us. The Biblical societies were collective/communal. (As well as patriarchal and sometimes tribally exclusive.) Their chapter on the value structure of honor/shame societies brought me closer to understanding this widespread way that humans have organized ourselves than anything I have ever read. (You don't have to read the Bible to run into this incomprehensible-to-us value system: the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset won a Noble prize in literature in 1928 for the novel Kristin Lavransdatter, which turns on these values.)

Misreading encourages an open mind, openness to different translations, and discussion with others to help modern students move toward a more culturally complex understanding of the Bible. I found their study suggestions worth thinking about and the whole worth reading.
That said, I found this book itself a cross-cultural experience. Richard and Bailey write for Biblical literalists, if not quite what I'd call fundamentalists. They expect their readers to be trying to take in and make moral and practical sense of every line in the Good Book.

That's not how I read the Bible. For me, the Bible is potent story, a sweeping collection of narratives, metaphors, and images that uncover something about reality, wisdom, and humanity. I encounter the book within a community-prescribed lectionary cycle. I'm sure I hear it within "western" preconceptions, but perhaps not quite the same ones as those to which these authors are writing. That only adds a layer to why I found Misreading interesting.


Rain Trueax said...
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Rain Trueax said...

I think that Christian-speak has become so defined by someone else that most people prefer to take an expert's word for what it means than really think. An example from my work and life comes with one of the Commandments. In the third commandment, it says don't take the name of your Lord in vain. Now that is commonly taken to mean swearing. I do not believe it's what it means. I think it's when I claim that God told me this or that for you to do but God never did. I imagined or even created it to gain power for myself. We see it all the time with candidates who claim God told them to run. They are taking the name of God to get you to do something. Where I run into it as a writer is there are those readers, fundamentalist Christians, who literally go apoplectic when they see someone using Jesus or God or an assortment of other words in mild profanity (regarded that way by most but not by them). They will stop reading right there for fear God will zap them from the sky. They though may go listen to a pastor or political leader who tells them the priesthood has risen and blood will be on you if you vote this way, or that God directed a hurricane at someone for approving gay marriage. To me those people are taking God's name in vain and if they are concerned with the commandments, they totally missed why that mattered when a mild profanity had nothing to do with God

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