Review: Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes (IVP, 2020)
I’m totally biased—I’m a student of Randy Richards, and I helped a little on the project—but this is one of the most illuminating biblical studies books I've read. I first heard these ideas in the classroom about five years ago, and this was the sort of stuff that made me want to become a Bible scholar.
Richards, a Bible scholar who taught in southeast Asia, teams up with Rich James, a Brit living in the Middle East, to introduce collectivism (in contrast with individualism) and how understanding collectivism helps us understand the Bible. Most of the world is collectivist, and certainly most societies of the past were collectivist. The individualism which characterizes the modern Western world represents a small slice of human experience. And, importantly for readers of the Bible, the biblical world was collectivist.
“Our Scriptures arose in a collectivist world…, so it would help us to learn a bit about collectivist cultures. Collectivism is so deep in the culture of the biblical writers that they rarely say so directly. It goes without being said, so we can miss it. To exacerbate the scenario, we often fill in what went without being said in their world (collectivism) with what goes without being said in ours (individualism)” (p. 19).
Hence, “Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes.” Or stated positively: re-reading Scripture with collectivist eyes.
So what is collectivism and individualism? I boyle it down to two elements: identity and obligation. Identity: When someone asks, “Who are you?”, what is the response? An individualist would say, “I’m Kevin, my favorite color is green,” or some other feature descriptive of you as an individual—occupation, hobbies, etc. A collectivist would answer, “I’m David, son of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah, an Israelite.” Collectivists still think of themselves as persons—biblical characters have names, and the authors use singular pronouns (“I am David...”)—but their identity is drawn principally from the groups to which they belong (“...son of Jesse,” etc.). Obligation: you are obligated to care for your group. This is where the book takes off. The ways collectivists care for their group, such as honor and shame, are unfamiliar to Western individualists, yet they are powerful (though unspoken) dynamics in Scripture.
The book is divided into two main parts. Part one introduces social structures of collectivism in the biblical world (kinship, patronage, and brokerage), and part two examines what they call social tools (honor, shame, and boundaries). The last fifty pages answer some of the “so what?” questions of how we can understand and to some extent apply biblical collectivism in our individualistic world.
I’ll keep my review brief and let you read the book. I’ll summarize why I like the book so much in three points: depth, breadth, and contemporary relevance.
Depth: The book will totally change the way you understand the words “grace” and “faith.” The book will help you understand why the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus so badly. The book, at least for me, changed how I understood the divine-human relationship in general. That’s deep, and those are just three examples.
Breadth: The authors take you through passage after biblical passage to explain collectivist dynamics present in the text and then to show how those dynamics affect interpretation. This thing is, though, that you can find these dynamics at play literally (yes, I mean literally) everywhere in the Bible. Relatively speaking, the book only scratches the surface. The authors catch few fish for us, but they also teach us how to fish. There are plenty more fish in the sea. It’ll change how you read the entire Bible.
Contemporary relevance: While the authors explicitly say that they aren’t trying to convert individualist readers into collectivists, they do remind the Western church of our bedrock collectivist identity and obligations that we seem to forget. The church is a family, and there are many important, practical connections for the family of faith today both stated and implicit in the book. It’s also worth noting that the book will help you understand the world better today. Excluding Western Europe and North America, the world is still largely collectivist. The book, if only incidentally, will make you not only a better reader of the Bible, but a better reader of the news, a better tourist, and/or a better missionary.
We often misread Scripture with individualist eyes. This book is like a pair of glasses with the right prescription enabling Westerners with individualist astigmatism to read Scripture with new clarity.