A Review of
Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World
E. Randolph Richards and Richard James
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I’ll never forget when I traveled to Tokyo for two weeks, for my brother’s wedding. As an American, I knew I was entering a very different culture from my own, and endeavored to be sensitive and careful. Almost immediately upon arriving, after one of the friendly hotel staff led my wife and me to our room, I pulled some cash out of my pocket and offered it to him. He politely demurred, and I (also thinking I was being polite) insisted that he take it. He gently smiled, bowed his head once again, and refused. Thankfully, I gathered my wits and stopped attempting to force this kind young man to take my money, as I learned later, from my brother, that “tipping” is actually not part of Japanese etiquette. This Japanese individual was gracious with me, but I realized how close I had come to committing an offense. Thinking I was being polite and generous, I had unknowingly crossed a cultural boundary, and I had only been in the country for a few hours.
So much for being careful.
If I had such significant cultural blind-spots in this cultural context, how much more might invisible cultural values impact the way I understand and interact with writings from a context that is not only geographically distant from my own, but also chronologically distant by centuries, and even millennia. But such is the reality when we read scripture, and the need for more culturally-sensitive reading is precisely what Randolph Richards and Richard James are responding to in their new volume, Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes.
A follow-up of sorts to Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (co-authored by Richards and also from InterVarsity Press), this new monograph drills more deeply into the sub-topic of “individualism” which was itself the subject of just a single chapter in the previous book. Through the broader lens of “individualism,” the co-authors explore social structures like kinship, patronage and brokerage, as well as social tools like honor, shame and boundaries, all of which deeply shaped the lenses of the biblical writers and storytellers. Throughout the book, well-known biblical stories and characters are re-visited with insights gleaned from these cultural values that Western-individualist readers are all-too-likely to miss. In fact, Misreading is at its most-enjoyable precisely when it verges into biblical commentary.
One of the strongest examples of this is the re-reading of the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Applying a more-rigorous understanding of values of “brokerage” and especially “kinship,” Richards and James deftly point out the ways in which Westerners are tempted to subtly distort the focus of the narrative. “For collectivists, it is not a story about how God advanced Joseph’s career. It is not an urban-migration success story.” (p. 11) A significant portion of the Joseph narrative, rather, is devoted to family relationships, inheritance, shame and eventual kinship-restoration. As someone who dutifully imbibed the exciting “career-advancement” interpretation from my days in Sunday School, I found this to be a re-invigorating illumination of such a familiar story, that in fact encouraged me to go back to the text itself with new appreciation. This section, and others like it that address both Old and New Testament texts, sparkle with insights, and are easily the most exciting sections of the book. The chapters that are devoted more solely to historical-cultural commentary than biblical commentary are still interesting, but less thrilling.
While much ink has been spilled regarding the cultural dynamics of honor and shame in the biblical world, one of the smartest distinctions Richards and James bring to that ongoing discussion is to discuss honor/shame as a social tool rather than a social structure. As such, “honor” is defined as a tool which was leveraged to reify intrinsic social values, such as kinship, rather than existing as a value in itself. This lends a fascinating nuance to interpretations of texts that address both honor and shame, such as when Paul himself says “I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:34), or even more intriguing, the notion of the crucifixion as an “honor killing” in the context of an “honor contest.” The Western (mis)understanding of how honor and shame functioned in the biblical world is something that almost certainly needs continual discussion, and I look forward to seeing how other commentators and interpreters respond to Richards and James work in this section.
Overall, Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes spends much more of its time unpacking ancient cultural values and mores than it does critiquing Western values. An explicit discussion of “individualist” blinders is largely relegated to a section comprising the final two chapters, titled “Why Does Collectivism Really Matter to Me?” and I cannot help but wonder if the book could have benefited from trimming down the discussions of ancient culture and amplifying the discussion of current cultural application. For example, while the distinctions between “shame” and “guilt” as two very-different social methods of motivating action are briefly discussed, it seems that there are many more implications of this than were given space in the book. Is guilt, as a social tool, intrinsic to only “individualist” cultures? Or does it precede from other social structures? If shame can be leveraged appropriately (as in the example of Paul in 1 Corinthians), are there ways guilt can similarly be leveraged? Or not? And how might our “guilt-lenses” (as opposed to “shame-lenses”) distort our interpretation of important biblical concepts, namely, the atonement? While Misreading does bring up some of these ideas and questions, there is much more to be said.
One final consideration is worth mentioning. While Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is published in IVP’s academic line, it is an extremely breezy read. Written in an utterly approachable style, this is a book that I could see handing to almost any congregant with even a passing curiosity in the ancient cultural context of the scriptures. In doing so, Richards and James have penned a book that provides some exciting and fresh readings of familiar biblical stories, and is also a strong entry point for those who wish to begin unpacking their own Western, cultural blinders.