I Do Not Think That WORD Means What You Think It Means

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Review of E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 240 pp. $16.00.

Of course, the correct quotation of Inigo Montoya’s famous line in The Princess Bride is “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unfortunately, it made too long a title, though in homage to Richards and O’Brien’s book, I have substituted the culturally defined Word for its more common reference. That is precisely the message of the book. You keep reading that Word. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. From their introduction:

Christians always and everywhere have believed that the Bible is the Word of God. God spoke in the past, “through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” and most clearly by his Son (Heb. 1:1). By the Holy Spirit, God continues to speak to his people through the Scriptures. It is important that Christ’s church retain this conviction, even as it poses certain challenges for interpretation. We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural 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. [Page 50]We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite. And yet we hardly notice. (p. 11)

The importance of what they are examining is highlighted by that last sentence. This is perhaps even more prevalent among Latter-day Saint scripture readers, if only because we have more scripture to misread. However, we justify ourselves in the misreading because we “liken all scriptures unto us” (2 Ne. 19:23). Certainly the real value of scripture is when it affects our lives in meaningful ways. However, we can also assume certain mandates from scripture that are not really there. This happens when we miss the cross-cultural subtleties embedded in the text. The authors explain:

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. When a passage of Scripture appears to leave out a piece of the puzzle because something went without being said, we instinctively fill in the gap with a piece from our own culture—usually a piece that goes without being said. When we miss what went without being said for them and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture. (pp. 12-13)

One of the things I found most fascinating about reading the book is that Richards and O’Brien are writing for an assumed audience that isn’t LDS. There is nothing wrong with that, but it creates some things that go without saying that become highlighted for an LDS reader. LDS readers know that other churches have missions, but we might not internalize the very [Page 51]significant differences between what a mission means in the two different religious cultures. Thus, when Richards speaks of his mission in Indonesia, an LDS reader immediately hits a word that is being used in a different way than we would use it. His experiences are invaluable in clarifying that the issues of cross-cultural understanding can exist in the modern world as well as in the ancient. The unintended benefit is that LDS readers are given a concrete example of the slight disjunction that can exist between two very similar cultures (in this case, two U.S.-based Christian traditions).

It is, perhaps, the inclusion of modern examples that make the ancient ones seem both more real and more intelligible. It is easy to ascribe some level of difference to an ancient population. After all, they lived so long ago that they didn’t have televisions, or even newspapers. To introduce different readings of the same text, Richards describes a situation brought to him by elders of a small village off the coast of Borneo. A young couple had eloped and the elders were concerned about their grievous sin. What was so terrible? Simply that they had eloped together rather than enter into the marriages that had been arranged for them. As he describes it:

“That’s it?” I blurted out. “What was the sin?”

Quite shocked , they stared at this young (and foolish) missionary and asked, “Have you never read Paul?”

I certainly thought I had. My Ph.D. was in Paul.

They reminded me that Paul told believers to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1). They were willing to admit that everyone makes mistakes. We don’t always obey. But surely one should obey in what is likely the most important decision of his or her life: choosing a spouse.

[Page 52]I suddenly found myself wondering if I had, in fact, ever really read Paul. My “American Paul” clearly did not expect his command to include adult children deciding whom to marry. (p. 18)

When the Indonesian elders likened scripture unto themselves, it clearly supported arranged marriages. Richards’s “American Paul” didn’t believe in arranged marriages, so the counsel wasn’t even applicable. Certainly, it is important that we liken the scriptures to ourselves, but if we are interested in what Paul might have meant, we need to look beyond our unstated cultural assumptions. Richards and O’Brien spend a book trying to help us better understand the unstated culture that is behind our Bible.

The book is organized into sections that correspond to an iceberg analogy. Some of it is visible, and some of the more important parts are those that are not seen under the surface. Thus one section is “Above the Surface,” the next “Just Below the Surface,” and the last “Deep Below the Surface.” In each section, they treat three topics that illustrate the cross-cultural gaps where increased understanding might improve our biblical reading. At the end of each individual chapter the authors include a set of questions intended to continue thought along the lines of the material presented in the chapter.

The cross-cultural issues are often illustrated by their personal experiences. These references to experiences from modern life not only make the reading more interesting, but they highlight our own provincial thinking. They don’t hesitate to include examples where their own culture-bound assumptions put them at odds with people from other countries.

Of course, their intent is to help us understand the Bible, and they do not fail to find interesting examples of ways where culture can explain things that we easily misunderstand. For example, a significant difference between modern and ancient [Page 53]cultures is the understanding of what it means to be wealthy. In a money economy, it seems that there is always more money to be made. For governments, sometimes that idea is taken literally. In contrast, wealth in the ancient world had much more to do with tangible goods and, particularly, the ownership of producing land. In such an atmosphere, wealth was a limited quantity. One could not “earn more money” just as one could not “make new farmland.” Richards and O’Brien note: “If you make your slice of the pie larger, then my slice is now smaller. In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor. Psalm 52:7 describes the wicked man who ‘trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others’ (p. 41).” Thus the opprobrium was not against wealth per se, but against the damage that accumulating wealth did to others.

Richards and O’Brien provide an interesting reading of Paul’s instruction that women must have their head covered in church (1 Cor. 11:5-6):

It is not immediately clear to us what the problem is, so we may assume something went without being said, which is a good instinct. So perhaps we assume that a woman’s hair was somehow sexually alluring to ancient people and that therefore a Christian woman needed to cover hers. We may then reason that since hair today is not a sexual turn-on, it is okay for a Christian woman to wear her hair down.

We are correct that something went without being said, but we are wrong about what that was…. Likely … Paul was admonishing the hostess of a house church to wear her marriage veil (“cover her head”) because “church” was a public event and because respectable [Page 54]Roman women covered their heads in public. These Corinthian women were treating church like their private dinner parties. (pp. 42-43)

They also provide an extended analysis of David and Bathsheba that I heartily recommend to any who have ever read, or even heard, that story. This is a new retelling that colors the same facts in new and richer colors. It makes for a very different picture, and for a very different moral to the story.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is written in an engaging manner and sprinkled with modern anecdotes that drive home the fact that the differences setting us apart from the people of the Bible have more to do with cultures than with time. Nevertheless, there is enough discussion of the Bible to show how to apply that understanding to create a richer reading of the Bible itself. They suggest that “the question about how our cultural and historical context influences our reading of Scripture has practical and pastoral implications. If our cultural blind spots keep us from reading the Bible correctly, then they can also keep us from applying the Bible correctly.” (p. 17)

Of course, Richards and O’Brien are only concerned with reading the Bible correctly. For Latter-day Saints, we have the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as further examples of ancient scriptures that come from different times and places. The principles they expound are applicable, though the particulars will necessarily change with the different locations of these other books. Richards and O’Brien’s work should remind us that there is much to learn about the books themselves by seeking to understand the cultural background that goes without saying behind those things that the text explicitly says. Personally, I look forward to more of that type of elucidation of our scriptural heritage.[Page 55]

14 thoughts on “I Do Not Think That WORD Means What You Think It Means

  1. Brant,

    I’m just about done with this quick read based on your recommendation. It has definitely been worth it. I do wonder your thoughts about chapter 9 and the misreading we may do when we “tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us”. This certainly is in line with the non-western way of thinking communally instead of the individuality we use. Nephi however tells us that the Nephites “likened” the scriptures unto themselves. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this. My first thought was that perhaps the book was wrong, but I was feeling the same bristling against the ideas because my cultural attitudes were getting in the way.
    So my question is “Could we be misunderstanding the use of Likening by the Nephites?” It seems that the likening done by the Nephites was done on a communal basis. I also wonder of this likening could have meant something different than the way we do it today. Could the adaptation of the text of Isaiah 29 into Nephi’s prophesy in 2 Ne 27 be an example of what they meant by likening? Would likening be a form of midrashim?

    • Mark, you have highlighted one of the most important issues for scripture reading. There are at least two perspectives in any scriptural text. One is that of the author and the other the reader. What strikes a chord with us from the text isn’t always what the text intended, which is the point of the book. However, if we don’t find a way to make the scriptures relevant to our own lives, then they are dead things for scholars rather than living water. It is a delicate balance.

      Personally, I see the balance in enriching my understanding of the meanings of the text so that I am better able to get a useful interpretation for modern life. When Nephi likened the scriptures, one of his big themes was the redemption of Israel. That was an important issue for him and his nascent community. They were a branch broken off from Israel and the desire to know that they were not forgotten was understandably strong. That particular likening fades from the text as different issues become more relevant.

      The scriptures show, through the stories of past human struggles, ways in which we can cope with our own. That requires some adaptation. What it doesn’t require is an overly literal reading that assumes our understanding was the intent of the scripture, and building too much practice on that. I think that an overly literal reading of Benjamin’s discourse on not turning away the beggar can be difficult in a world where the economic situation is dramatically different from the agricultural society in which he lived. There, a beggar was typically one whose crop had failed. Mine could be next, and sharing was important. In a monetary culture, there are so many reasons that a beggar is on the streets, and so many ways in which they might get real help that I might be best helping those who provide real help rather than providing something that might hurt more than help (of course individual circumstances can vary–but I am referring to a blanket application of Benjamin’s charge).

      As for the reworking of Isaiah 29 into 2 Ne 27, I think there are multiple processes at work. One is the prophetic application of the scripture, and the second the translator’s understanding of the fulfillment of prophecy influencing the language used to describe the prophecy.

      • Thanks for answering me regarding this. Do you feel we will be able to make any headway to understand the way the Nephites thought? To be able to see that things are going unsaid in the text?

        • I do see it as being possible, but always somewhat speculative. Understanding what goes unsaid requires cultural information, and that requires a geography. Since there are lots of opinions on geography, there will be lots of opinions on what the cultural backdrop to the text might be. However, I find that Mesoamerica provides a very productive cultural context. By productive, I mean that Mesoamerican concepts allow us to fill in some of the gaps of the unsaid with information that gives a richer and more understandable picture of the actions in the text. I have not seen that happen with the cultural context from any other proposed geography.

  2. I am a little embarrassed to admit I chose to read this article because the title read itself in Inigo Montoya’s voice in my head. I hope the title made you giggle (or chuckle, or snort, as appropriate) when you thought of it: I snorted happily when I read it. Thanks for a clear and interesting review, and thanks for the authors’ example you chose. It helped me change “Paul is telling women how to dress, and women don’t wear head coverings in church anymore, so doubly irrelevant to me” to “Paul is instructing that sacrament meeting is not a casual social gathering: hey, that’s relevant.”

  3. While it is very true that having knowledge of the context is valuable, not many people even want to take the long years necessary for “original intent” understanding.
    Were that desirable, or even necessary, not many people would get to the Celestial realm. (And JS Jr., would be woefully out of his depth is a world of intensive scholarship, yes?)
    The wonderful things about all Scripture (with capital ‘S’), is that it speaks to every person in the place they are, not in the place they are not. So, who cares if anybody gets it “wrong”? Not only are people admonished to “liken”, but God speaks to people in their own “language” (including the taken-for-granted cultural context.
    My take on it is that books like this are valuable, but not necessary. Why? Scholarship never saved anybody.

    • Well, we agree that personal readings can be valuable. We will continue to disagree on whether or not learning more about the scriptures can enhance our understanding. As for Joseph, everything I know about him suggests that if he had access to that kind of information, he would pursue it to master it. Witness the way he tackled Hebrew. I suspect that he would have seen richer ways to communicate God’s message (though not changing the substance, of course).

      Sometimes our misunderstanding of scripture actually works better than the original. For example, learning “line upon line” is a great principal and very useful to help us understand how to go about learning. It is a misreading of the original and is perhaps even opposed to the original idea. Still, quite useful.

      The idea that Mormon’s are a peculiar people has been adopted as a badge of honor, but it is based on an archaic meaning of “peculiar.” Missionaries in foreign languages who attempt to teach that principal will find quickly that it won’t work.

      Understanding why women cover their heads in Paul’s exhortation prevents us from making up stuff that wasn’t relevant. It might not hurt, but it doesn’t help our proper understanding of women’s roles if we base our ideas on something that didn’t intend to mean what we read into it.

      Randolph and O’Brien have a fascinating reading of the idea of not being hot or cold. From the context, it has a different meaning. It is one where we might get the wrong idea without some understanding.

      I really do suggest that reading the book will help anyone understand that while there are uses for the personal readings, there are important things to be learned from the ancient context.

      • Brant,

        I completely agree with your point. I find it interesting that you are getting a little resistance from others to the idea that understanding the original intent can be valuable.

        While it should be granted that the original intent of scriptures are not their sole or even primary value to us today, I think it is certainly of worth. Not only to glean additional insights but also to defend against popular misreadings that enemies of religion like to use as a club against the Bible and those who believe it.

  4. Even if we can bridge some of the cultural and linguistic gaps through study, we are left with the most important gap, that between us and God

    Isa. 55:8 ¶For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
    9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    John’s comment on the fundamental need for the Holy Ghost, so that the original intent may be transmitted anew, is imperative. It is at the heart of modern scripture and the way they were “transalated correctly.”

    • Ric, I certainly agree that the Holy Ghost will guide our personal reading and application of scripture. While it is also just as certain that God’s ways are different from ours, there are too many times when we interpret cross-cultural differences between our world and that of the Bible (or Book of Mormon, or book of Abraham) as coming from God rather than from the much more relevant and informative cultural background of those who wrote those texts.

      We always read the texts for our own edification, and the principle of likening scripture to our own lives is just as important now as it was when Nephi said it. Nevertheless, we gain a richer understanding of scripture and one that does not lead us into forced applications when we understand the cultural contexts behind the texts. Richards and O’Brien make that very same point–powerfully. I suggest that you read the book as a way of understanding those subtle but important differences.

  5. I have a BS in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and spent 4 years of university studying Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. At one time I would have agreed that learning more about the culture of the scriptures and what the authors of the scriptures meant when they wrote down their words was highly important to understanding the scriptures. But, the older I get the less inclined I am to think that. I’ve come to the conclusion that the scriptures are not the point, the Holy Ghost is the point. The scriptures act as a tool to get our mind into a state to receive revelation from the Holy Ghost. Often I’ve found that the Holy Ghost uses the scriptures to reveal something to me that is at odds with what the authors of that scripture intended or how it is traditionally interpreted, but that is okay since the Holy Ghost is just revealing things that apply to me and my stewardship. Someone else will receive a different interpretation of the same passage of scripture from the Holy Ghost because their situation and stewardship are distinct from my own. Anyway, I know an awful lot about the culture, customs, languages, etc. of the ancients, but I feel like my wife, who knows none of these things and has absolutely no interest in learning these things gets more out of the scriptures than I do since she is so closer to the Holy Ghost than I am. It is the Spirit that matters. Of maybe, the scriptures were made for man, and not man for the scriptures.

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