January 25, 2021

Bible Week: Quotes about the Bible – Richards & O’Brien

Quotes about the Bible
#2 – E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien

In other situations, what goes without being said for us can lead us to miss important details in a Bible passage, even when the author is trying to make them obvious. Mark Allan Powell offers an excellent example of this phenomenon in “The Forgotten Famine,” an exploration of the theme of personal responsibility in what we call the parable of the prodigal son.” Powell had twelve students in a seminary class read the story carefully from Luke’s Gospel, close their Bibles and then retell the story as faithfully as possible to a partner. None of the twelve American seminary students mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14, which precipitates the son’s eventual return. Powell found this omission interesting, so he organized a larger experiment in which he had one hundred people read the story and retell it, as accurately as possible, to a partner. Only six of the one hundred participants mentioned the famine. The group was ethnically, racially, socioeconomically and religiously diverse. The “famine-forgetters,” as Powell calls them, had only one thing in common: they were from the United States.

Later, Powell had the opportunity to try the experiment again, this time outside the United States. In St. Petersburg, Russia, he gathered fifty participants to read and retell the prodigal son story. This time an overwhelming forty-two of the fifty participants mentioned the famine. Why? Just seventy years before, 670,000 people had died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants in Powell’s exercise. Based solely on cultural location, people from America and Russia disagreed about what they considered the crucial details of the story.

Americans tend to treat the mention of the famine as an unnecessary plot device. Sure, we think: the famine makes matters worse for the young son. He’s already penniless, and now there’s no food to buy even if he did have money. But he has already committed his sin, so it goes without being said for us that the main issue in the story is his wastefulness, not the famine. This is evident from our traditional title for the story: the parable of the prodigal (“wasteful”) son. We apply the story, then, as a lesson about willful rebellion and repentance. The boy is guilty, morally, of disrespecting his father and squandering his inheritance. He must now ask for forgiveness.

Christians in other parts of the world understand the story differently. In cultures more familiar with famine, like Russia, readers consider the boy’s spending less important than the famine. The application of the story has less to do with willful rebellion and more to do with God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from hopeless situations. The boy’s problem is not that he is wasteful but that he is lost.

Our goal in this book is not, first and foremost, to argue which interpretation of a biblical story like this one is correct. Our goal is to raise this question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook a famine, what else do we fail to notice?

• E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible


  1. This is a reason not just to have heavy input from experts in ANE culture and biblical studies involved in our interpretation and understanding of the Bible. It’s also a reason to have as many people from as many different socioeconomic and cultural and life-experience backgrounds as possible involved together in the reading and interpreting of scripture. In other words, the insight given in this post supports the Protestant principle of including not just religious and scholarly specialists but also laity of every kind in the church’s project of collaborative biblical interpretation of scripture. Liberation Theologians proceeded on this basis in the reading of scripture together with poor peasants in Central and South American countries. The whole church reading the whole Bible together.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > …as many different socioeconomic and cultural and life-experience backgrounds…

      Yes, this.

      Even a ‘local’ church not being A-Community but With-The-Community. Isolation is toxic.

    • I retract my use of the qualifier Protestant in reference to the principle of inclusive biblical reading and interpretation that I talk about in my comment; it’s unnecessarily contentious and divisive to speak of it as such. What is important is that such reading be collaborative and informed. Neither merely private reading, which has become common among evangelical Protestants, and merely religious specialist/scholarly expert reading, which was typical of Roman Catholicism up until very recently and still dominates Catholicism and much mainline Protestantism in many ways, will do. Both of these are just more of the same. We need to come to biblical reading and study with others trusting that we can discover the meaning of the text together.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > We need to come to ….

        I’d expand this to almost all forms of reading. One of the best things we can do for the bible is to **remove** its special status – it needs to be understood like all texts need to be understood.

        • >> One of the best things we can do for the bible is to **remove** its special status –

          I have been working to better understand the Bible for some 45 years now and expect to continue doing so as best I can in whatever time I have left. If I did not believe that the Bible has special status I would consider all this time and effort and money spent to be a spectacular waste of life. Granted that you can devote a lifetime to the academic intellectual study of the Bible as to any literary or scientific or artistic endeavor, but I have zero interest in any of that, except as it might help me understand the mystery of God better. If you are trying to get somewhere you have heard about but never been there as far as you can remember, it seems to me that it makes sense to gather as much information as possible as to the best way of getting there. I don’t confine my gathering to the Bible only, but it seems to me so far to be the central and most important map that everything else can be compared with in assessing the best way forward. I would call that special status.

  2. The problem with taking other people’s cultural thinking into account is that other people think funny.

    • That’s quite true. Unfortunately when we read the Bible we often think that they think just like us, but they don’t. I used to tell people when we read the Bible we have to become time travelers – imagining ourselves listening to Jesus in a land occupied by Roman soldiers and such. Now I tell people that we have to become space travelers – their world, their values, and their relationships with each other were so different from ours it’s more like visiting another planet!

      • That Other Jean says

        L.P. Hartley was mostly right: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” but they think differently there, too. It’s too easy to forget that.

  3. It is difficult for ANY cultural/ethnic/socioeconomic group to think outside of their own frame of reference. Just because others pull different views from a particular portion of scripture, that does not necessarily mean that OURS is wrong. It’s NOT! It is just different.

    But we need to strive to keep our minds and understanding open so that we do not isolate ourselves and then proclaim our understanding as being “the truth”.

    I look forward to further posts on this book…

  4. I find this post extremely interesting and curious, because (coincidentally) I just led my church’s Saturday men’s group through Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In our discussion of the younger son’s “leaving” and “return,” the famine was mentioned but certainly not dwelt upon to any extent.

    I wonder if depression-era Americans might focus a little more on the famine.

  5. Oh dang. That’s a good post. Really good.

  6. Michael Bell says

    I think the key point that is often lost in the telling of this parable, is that Jesus is using it to rebuke the Pharisees and the teachers of the law:

    Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

    By giving the older brother the same reaction as the Pharisees, Jesus is in fact saying. “Hey, guess what guys, you are the older brother in this story! While I am showing grace, love, and mercy to tax collectors and sinners, you are all concerned about merit and legalistic exclusion of people that God wants to welcome.”

    I think this is the part that most often missed in the sermon, especially those how have grown up with the “Protestant work ethic.”

    So yes, there is a set of cultural blinders that cause most of us in North America to miss this key element of the parable.

    • That is a key point, but I wonder if that is the key point those Pharisees got, or that Jesus intended. I think this parable is full of issues related to honor and shame – the overriding cultural value in the ancient near east. For example, Ken Bailey, in his book ‘Jesus through Palestinian Eyes’ notes that fathers did not pine over their reprobate sons – they disowned them (much like parents in some countries today burn their daughters to death for marrying someone against their wishes). That is what honor required and what both sons expected. He also notes that respected elders would NEVER run, much less after that reprobate son. The older brother is all about the honor of the family (and the commandment – ‘honor your parents’). I think the whole point is Jesus challenging the dominant cultural value of his day – honor and shame – that the Pharisees have transferred to God. I think his point is that the Kingdom runs on a different set of values and that God is far more concerned about people (even those who have dishonored themselves) than he is about HIS honor (sorry John Piper). I’ve become more and more convinced it’s ALL ABOUT the culture.

    • Nouwen hits that point toward the end of his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

  7. Michael Bell says

    Protestant Work Ethic, for those wanting to know more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_work_ethic

    • If you don’t work, you don’t eat.

      Funny how the reverse isn’t always true, that if you work, you deserve to be able to eat.

      But I imagine that’s more true in America than Canada.

  8. Michael Bell says

    We miss so much in scripture because of our ingrained cultural biases. Jesus teaching on the poor is glossed over.

    How often have you heard a sermon on this gospel:

    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
    20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:18-20

    • Michael Bell…I’ve noticed you popping onto the boards more frequently lately. Nice to see you a little more consistently!

    • The last sermon I heard at our old church was on that passage – it was that week in the lectionary. Unfortunately it was allegorized into ‘spiritual poverty [sin]’, ‘blinded by sin’, ‘oppressed by sin’, ‘prisoners of sin’ – totally about personal piety and soterian gospel. Took a passage about good news – the inclusion of ‘outcasts’ into God’s kingdom – and turned it into something entirely different (something much more ‘relevant’ 🙂 ).

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