Reading the Bible from a WEIRD Perspective

Often the Bible mystifies us because of cultural differences, from simple details to important differences in worldview. It’s hardly surprising, given that thousands of years of time and cultural change separate us.

Kids closeA recent ground-breaking paper in psychology may have revealed another intriguing clue as to why the Bible is so puzzling.

Almost all psychological research has been done in universities in America and Europe. But when these same studies were done with groups around the world, they found that Euro/American responses were far from typical compared to the rest of the world.

Psychologists coined the acronym “WEIRD” for the aspects of Euro/American culture (particularly the secular university world) that separate it most from the rest of humanity: we are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (in voting countries).*

What I find fascinating is that these same cultural traits also tend to set us apart from Middle Eastern reality of Jesus and the biblical world. Let’s take a closer look at how a WEIRD worldview contrasts with how the Bible “thinks”:

 

Western and Educated: We formulate ideas as our Greek cultural ancestors did, not the Hebraic thinkers of Jesus’ world. We think in abstractions, and find proof-based logical argument far more convincing than the parables that Jesus used.

As children of the Enlightenment, educated Westerners have seen the power of human reason to conquer the physical world, and are convinced that reason is the measure of all things. Science is the final proof of truth, in our way of thinking.

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Industrialized: The rhythms of our lives have been utterly transformed by our modern world. We don’t sustain ourselves on the land by working alongside family through successive seasons of planting and harvest. Jesus’ frequent parables about fisherman and farmers don’t evoke a visceral response in us, as they would in much of the agrarian world.

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Rich: Most of us are relatively “rich” in that we have easy access to food, housing and medicine, and feel secure about our future. The daily worries of people throughout history simply don’t concern us.

Kids close upWhen we read Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:15-21, about a farmer who builds barns for his bumper crop so that he can retire, his behavior fits in quite well into a WEIRD culture. Here, wealth is common and individualism is celebrated. In much of world, it would be shocking that the farmer didn’t share with his community.

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Democratic: We are used to government “by the people, for the people,” and expect to have a say in all decisions affecting our lives. We have a very strong sense of equality and freedom of speech.

Some central biblical metaphors make little sense to us, like God establishing his “kingdom” on earth, and the Messiah (Christ) as God’s anointed “king.” We may even find them offensive, because personal autonomy is of supreme value to us. (See my recent post about the Messianic King.)

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Westerners think very analytically. Our culture is also very secular and places a strong emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. Much of the world is far less secular and sees people principally as members of groups—families, tribes, and nations—with strong claims to loyalty.

Could it be that our culture’s “uniqueness” is also a barrier to relating to the biblical worldview? Some time ago I posted an intriguing comment from Eugene Nida, a Bible translation expert who has worked in cultures all around the globe:

If one were to make a comparison of the culture traits of the Bible with those of all the existing cultures of today…one would find that in certain respects the Bible is surprisingly closer to many of them than to the technological culture of the western world. It is this “western” culture that is the aberrant one in the world. And it is precisely in the western world, and in the growing number of persons in other parts of the world, that the Scriptures have seemingly the least ready acceptance.**

It sounds Nida would agree with the social scientists. It’s not that the Bible is culturally so “odd,” but that we are. Hmm.

Right now I’m chewing over what other implication there might be. How else are we reading the Bible in a WEIRD way? I welcome your thoughts, especially international readers.

 

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*The original paper, called “The Weirdest People in the World?” was published by Joe Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2010. This study has spurred further discussion in the secular media about differences between cultures, including the best-seller The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt points out that WEIRD cultures frame their ethical systems only in terms of the freedoms and rights of the individual, unlike the rest of the world, which also bases its ethics on the value of community and of divinity—the idea that one’s principal duty is to God, not one’s self.

See also my article, “Hebraic Thinking is that of an Oral Perspective.” It discusses the thesis of Walter Ong’s classic, Orality and Literacy, that the Western worldview arose because of widespread literacy in the ancient world.

** Meaning Across Cultures, by Eugene Nida. (Orbis, 1981), 29.

Also of interest are articles on other blogs, with further discussion:

It is OK not to be WEIRD

How WEIRD are you?

Comments

8 Responses to “Reading the Bible from a WEIRD Perspective”

  1. 1
    Chad|October 8, 2014

    I think we read Ephesian 2:15 (and all of Ephesians) in a very weird way. I’ve often wondered how the church would be different if Paul’s thoughts were placed in the appropriate context. How would we view Roman’s 9,10 and 11 if we looked at passages like this (and others) through Paul’s cultural lens? Paul’s thought of “One new man” looks very different than our view living in the west.

  2. 2
    Don|October 8, 2014

    One of the reasons I have found myself attracted to the books and videos of authors like yourself (or RVL, et. al)is that the information cuts through the influence of (often misapplied) “western” culture & thought and presents valuable insights into what was meant originally. Yet, we are who we are, and I do live in the USA…so I still must find the best way to take the age old truth of our LORD and apply it to the modern world I live in. Reading your books has made a positive difference in helping me do this…Thanks!

  3. 3
    Weyman Howard|October 10, 2014

    Thank you! So many in Western Christianity are struggling to follow Jesus and are content to simply have correct information about him – to “believe” without any real daily life experience. Somehow they incorrectly think this is what being a Christian is all about.

    Disciples follow. That means they actually dare to change their way of life to that of their Master. I have found there is one path that absolutely creates in us the nature of Jesus and fulfills His will. This path uproots the Western mind and establishes God’s mind in us.

    The path is simple and yet transformational on every level. The path is – love.

    Love humbles us and protects us from the choking weeds of materialism and the cares of this life. Love empowers us to be Ambassadors of Light in darkness, leading people to transformational life.

    Love is the nature of God. Love is the will of God. And yet we find in every denomination every measure of instruction and teaching except for love. I am not saying there is no teaching ABOUT love. I am saying there is no process HOW to love. We have not found one denomination that has a clear discipleship process to mature their people into the power of God’s love.

    They focus on the duties of the Christian life – read your bible, pray, worship… but there is no discipleship process that leads the person to know HOW to walk daily in the love of God. This is the path that leads us into knowing God intimately because we are trusting Him with our daily life and decisions.

    LoveWorks is a clear discipleship process that establishes God’s mind in the mind of his children. It teaches them how to have his heart and strength as they learn to lay their lives down for others – as they follow Jesus’ example in their own daily life.

    Thank you for shining a light on the reality that the Western mindset is one of information without truly abandoning our very lives to follow Christ in all things – to love. That makes no sense – but correct “belief” is where we spend all our energy and time. Just look at the calendar of many Christians – they are filled with more opportunity to receive information but practically nothing in the schedule for serving and loving others.

    Love your blog and hope it continues to challenge the hearts of your readers.

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|October 12, 2014

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and encouragement. I agree that we are very big on “believing” here, rather than “doing.” In the church where I grew up, people were very afraid of “works-righteousness,” so we replaced it with “thoughts-righteousness” instead.

    Regarding Chad’s comment about one body, I agree. I think that part of the problem is that we don’t appreciate how critical corporate identity was. It was just unthinkable that “God’s people” could include those not a part of Israel. Especially because Gentiles were seen as degenerate sinners (1Cor 5:1, Gal. 2:16, 1Peter 4:3). God’s acceptance of them as part of his people was mind-boggling.

  5. 5
    Daniel Baker|December 12, 2014

    I salute the basic understanding outlined by Weyman Howard above. Basically I say ditto, and shout it from the highest hill.

  6. 6
    Jonny Boyd|May 15, 2016

    great article, just scratching the surface of something deep, profound and important. I hope and pray the church of our Lord takes this seriously and examines the many ways that we have mis-interpreted the bible with the lens of western secular humanism rather than the lens of hebraic faith.

  7. 7
    Jim MacGregor|March 30, 2017

    Recently, at a men’s morning gathering, my pastor asserted that the parable of the dishonest merchant found in Luke 16 did not lend itself to preaching because it is difficult to understand; that he did not understand it.
    I explained that this parable and others are interpreted in terms of God’s grace and blessings and what we do with them. I elaborated briefly.
    A member commented that he did not understand any of what I had said.
    The pastor and others remained silent and we changed the subject.
    I believe that that incident reflects our Western bias in thinking. I further believe that the bias can be overcome by having properly trained religious leaders who can guide us into understanding what we read. There seem to be increasingly fewer of such leaders in my denomination.

  8. 8
    Cynthia Prentice|July 17, 2017

    Thank you Lois!

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