Review: Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Richard James. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Shows how we may misread scripture if we do not reckon with the collectivist context in which it is written, and in which many cultures still live.

It was an eyeopener for me when I discovered that the “you” in many of the New Testament letters is often a plural you–“you all” or “y’all” if you are from the American South. It turns out that this was just the tip of the iceberg. So many of the narratives in scripture are understood very differently when understood in collectivist rather than individualist frameworks.

E. Randolph Richards and Richard James have lived in such cultures, and while each culture, including those of scripture, have their own nuances, the authors draw upon these experiences to help us read scripture through a new lens, a collectivist lens. They consider the social structures of kinship, patronage, and brokerage, and the social tools of honor, shame, and boundaries. Finally, they draw conclusions about why it matters, even in an individualist context.

In collective structures, our kinship group tells us who we are–and who we marry. Remember Jacob and Laban? He wants Rachel, but he is given Leah first. That’s the way it is done in family. Then there is patronage. When Paul speaks of being saved by grace through faith, he describes a good patronage situation. God extends grace through Christ, literally charis or gift, and we both trust and are loyal to our patron, God. Finally, there is brokerage, where a third party mediates between two others. What else is Jesus but a broker or mediator between God and humans?

Then there are the social tools that enforce values in collective cultures. One’s honor is one’s greatest asset. Many of the challenges to Jesus are challenges to his honor, and thus his authority to teach. David gained honor in the conflict with Saul, not merely for being a good shot, but for trusting God in the conflict. In the West we consider one who sins guilty. In other cultures, the issue is shame. We have come to think that shame is always bad, but in collectivist societies shame comes with a path to remove it. Confronting a person with whom you have a grievance minimizes shame–allowing the person to remove shame without others knowing about it. Then there are boundaries, ones that define groups, ones that define how men and women relate, or don’t. When we choose a group, we accept their boundaries.

The authors show how each of these collectivist elements function at their best and worst, and explore how they may be engaged redemptively. While there are important insights individualists see in scripture, there is much we learn when we read with collectivist eyes. More than that, we discover dimensions of our collective life in Christ. Our salvation isn’t just about me but we. We are part of a people, a family, with new boundaries and new values. Sometimes our individualist outlook not only leads us to misread the Bible, but also misleads us in our participation in Christian community. At very least, we misunderstand Christians in other cultures. At most, we miss out on dimensions of life in Christ and others miss out on what we bring to the family.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eyes

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2021 | Bob on Books

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