Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World
by E.Randolph Richards and Richard James
IVP Academic, 2020
Reviewed by Moyra Dale
The book is divided into three sections. First is Social Structures of the Biblical World, looking at kinship (2 chapters), Patronage (3) and Brokerage. Second is Social Tools: Enforcing and Reinforcing Our Values, which covers Honor (3 chapters), Shaming (1) and Boundaries (2). The third section asks, Why Does Collectivism Matter to Me? It explores Redeeming Kinship and Boundaries, and Redeeming Patronage and Brokerage.
This book is a successor to the authors’ earlier book, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: and picks up some of the themes introduced earlier by David deSilva (Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity. Unlocking the New Testament Culture:2000) and Bruce Malina (The New Testament World. Insights from Cultural Anthropology:2001). So what does this book add?
First is its immediate accessibility. It’s an easy read: and the authors take us straight into different Bible narratives, pointing out dimensions that western readers usually miss, that illuminate and even alter how we read what is happening, in both Old and New Testament narratives. By looking at particular Bible passages, it brings them to life for a fresh reading.
It illuminates Bible passages by reflecting on current incidents encountered by the authors, many of them from the Middle East and South East Asia. This exemplifies the importance of conversation between Bible and contemporary cultures, based on more reflective analysis of the latter. In doing so, it offers readers involved in cross cultural work an opportunity to reflect on their context and cultural interactions.
It was encouraging to see that the authors included a number of examples involving women as well as men, in relation to the different areas explored.
The book takes contemporary discussions around Honor and Shame forward in a couple of ways. One is reminding us that Honor and Shame are not opposites, but two different dimensions. This has been said before, but the authors helpfully deal with them separately here. The other is suggesting that Honour, Shame and the use of Boundaries are not values, but rather social tools or means that are used by any culture to reinforce its values (values including things like kinship and patronage, and how they may be configured differently in different cultural contexts. This is a thought-provoking reframing, and a useful one.
The discussion of Boundaries was worthwhile, but could have been richer if they had considered its interaction with dimensions such as Purity. Boundaries are a potent category in cultural anthropology which can be associated with power and danger. This may be boundaries in space (for example, entrances to a house, including windows, doors, drains: body boundaries) or in time (sunrise and sunset, life-stage passages) as well as communities: and exploring this could constitute a book in its own right.
While this is not a book particularly about women (although it includes some of their stories), or about Islam, I recommend it. It deepens our appreciation of the implications then (and now for us) as we read the Bible – you might like to get a copy for your pastor as well. It enriches our understanding of the non-individualistic cultural contexts in which we may be living. And it models how to bring the Bible and contemporary cultures into fruitful conversation with each other.
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and Doctor of Theology (Melbourne School of Theology).