Rarely, when reviewing books, does where I live play a role. In reading “Misreading scripture with individualistic eyes” though, it feels important to note that South Africa has deep roots in collectivist culture. Authors E. Randolph Richards and Richard James set out to explain to readers from individualistic cultures the differences between the two and how that impacts the way we read the Bible, they comment:

“…to understand ancient Mediterranean (and most modern Eastern) collectivist cultures, you need to understand six basic ingredients: kinship, patronage, brokerage, honor, shame, and boundaries.”

However, I felt like neither fish nor fowl! I was raised as a first generation South African by British parents but in living over 30 years in South Africa, these six basic ingredients felt familiar and my interpretation of the examples given lined up on the collectivist side of things. I am a mix of the two, I can see both sides, but felt more comfortable with the collectivist than the individualist. Whichever side you find yourself on, better understanding how culture and context impact how we interpret stories is a good thing and as such, I enjoyed the book. My experience of collectivist culture meant I found having a concept explained three or four times over in different ways repetitive but, perhaps, for those less familiar with it, it will be helpful.

In Africa, there is a saying about the meaning “being in the air”, unstated and yet understood. It would be seem to be similar in Eastern culture as a large part of the book explains what ISN’T said in the Bible as it “…examines some unspoken foundational social structures and tools used in the biblical world.” The authors do this through expounding on Biblical stories, sharing modern examples and writing fictional stories to highlight their points. In doing so, they achieve their objective of highlighting how different the Biblical world view was in comparison to today’s Western culture.

If you haven’t experienced a collectivist culture, this book will open your eyes to a very different way of perceiving the world and change the way you see many of the familiar stories from the Bible. If you have, this may not be the one for you, it doesn’t dig deeply into particulars of the Biblical culture and admits to using generalisations to make the point. It’s a three out of five on the enJOYment scale.

The Bible was written within collectivist cultures. When Westerners, immersed in individualism, read the Bible, it’s easy to misinterpret important elements—or miss them altogether. In any culture, the most important things usually go without being said. So to read Scripture well we benefit when we uncover the unspoken social structures and values of its world. We need to recalibrate our vision. Combining the expertise of a biblical scholar and a missionary practitioner, Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is an essential guidebook to the cultural background of the Bible and how it should inform our reading. E. Randolph Richards and Richard James explore deep social structures of the ancient Mediterranean—kinship, patronage, and brokerage—along with their key social tools—honor, shame, and boundaries—that the biblical authors lived in and lie below the surface of each text. From Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to Peter’s instructions to elders, the authors strip away individualist assumptions and bring the world of the biblical writers to life. Expanding on the popular Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, this book makes clear how understanding collectivism will help us better understand the Bible, which in turn will help us live more faithfully in an increasingly globalized world.

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