Thursday, April 25, 2013

Robert Letham: Misreading "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes"

I've recovered enough mobility in my hand to type more efficiently, so we’ll get back to our usual schedule on Monday, which will include the next application question asked by our reader. For now, we will address what is a partially misguided review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (MSWE), authored by Robert Letham, and featured on the Gospel Coalition website (link below). Most of the review is positive, but Letham offers three general reservations that spoil much of the benefit readers would derive from the review.

First, Letham says, "the bulk of the book’s examples are based on Richards’ experience in Indonesia; however, Indonesia is not Israel in biblical times. " That is true, but beside the point. Richards and O'Brien use Indonesia because it is where they have personally been. Even so, the attributes they describe broadly exist in some manifestation in ALL agonistic, collectivist societies, and that includes Israel in biblical times. 

As an illustration of this, in my recent reading of Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder, a biography of Kit Carson, I found included a discussion of Navajo concepts of time. Central elements of this reflected those also found in the description offered by Richards and O'Brien in their discussion of time in the Biblical world, and in Indonesia. It would obviously be profoundly nonsensical to object to Sides that Indonesia is not Navajo culture in the time of Kit Carson.
Letham's point about Indonesia not being Israel in biblical times is therefore a non sequitur, in terms of making MSWE less relevant or accurate in terms of application. 

I would add at this point that this misperception is most likely to Letham's academic orientation: He is a systematic theologian, not a scholar of the social sciences. The scholars of the Context Group have done significant work in showing that "Israel in Biblical times" (indeed, the Roman Empire in Biblical times) had the very attributes that Richards and O'Brien describe for Indonesia.

Letham goes on:

Moreover, much of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is taken up with the idea of cultural distinctiveness as such. This is a necessary part of the hermeneutical process, but it’s not immediately relevant to the title of the book.

Letham might consider that publishers, not authors, are usually responsible for selecting titles, though whether either does so is usually related to issues such as sales or indexing in databases, not relevance to subject matter. The classic example of this today is Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which is not about misquoting, and says relatively little about Jesus in particular. In either event this point is rather nitpicky.

After this Letham also objects again to the focus on Indonesia, "so many that at times it seems more a manual for an intending missionary in Indonesia." So it would be -- and in the same way, it would serve as a manual for an intending time traveler to the Biblical world, or a reader of the Bible. As noted, Indonesia is merely a useful analogy, since the authors have been there. Why does Letham see a need to make an issue of this? I daresay again that it is because he is not expert enough in the social sciences to see the relevance of the material.

Second, Letham considers "a number of lexicographical assertions that are at best highly questionable." He selects two for illustration: the distinction between chronos and kairos, and the four types of love, like agape. Letham does not address or refute these contentions, though; he merely claims that such distinctions were "undermined by the work of scholars such as James Barr." 

Well, no, they have not been. Barr was a fine scholar in his own right, as a linguistic specialist, but he was not at all aware of the social differences between our world and the Biblical world. Rather than Barr undermining the work of authors like Richards, O'Brien, Malina, and Pilch, it is their work which should be seen as a corrective to Barr. That is a very good reason why Barr is not mentioned. I might also add that Barr criticized the idea of Biblical inerrancy, which places Barr at odds with the views of the Gospel Coalition that Letham is writing his review for. So does Letham really wish to posit or imply that Barr is not open to correction, and should serve as a corrective to MSWE?

The last points offered object to a perceived "theological deficit" in MSWE. Letham refers to "certain relativizing of the law of God, seen in a polarity between law and relationships, " but I found no such relativizing in MSWE, and Letham does not quote the text of MSWE to show that there is any such relativizing. The same objection is made regarding "a similar polarity between the individual and the collective." It would seem rather that Letham has fallen victim to the classic misunderstanding also found in Barnett's Paul and the Salvation of the Individual: Namely, that by reinvigorating the notion of collective identity, MSWE has somehow denied or trivialized individual responsibility. Not at all; no scholar of the social sciences would deny that "Adam’s disobedience to the law of God was simultaneously a breach of his covenantal relation to him..." especially since Adam was part of the collective – indeed the founding member – of the very group with which the covenant was made. The "false conflict" Letham perceives is in his own imagination.

The last point is, regrettably, the most appalling. Addressing the point in MSWE about the non-existence of guilt and modern expressions of internal conscience, Letham rather condescendingly suggests that "the authors should read carefully Psalm 32 and kindred passages." I would suggest that Letham read carefully the wide range of social science scholarship available, showing that it is he who is force-reading modern ideas into the text. What "effects of suppressed and unconfessed sin" there are there, are due to shame, not guilt -- because God, an external agent, is aware of David's sin, not because his internal conscience is disturbing him:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me (32:3-4)

Note that it says "YOUR" hand -- God's hand -- was heavy on David.  That is the source of David's shame.

It is unfortunate that Letham has been allowed to review this book and perpetuate these misunderstandings that MSWE and scholars like those in the Context Group are trying so hard to correct.

1 comment:

  1. This demonstrates quite clearly that linguistic studies are not enough to understand the Biblical text in its entirety from a scholarly perspective. Letham needs to learn that a linguistic study can't really be used as a critique of a cultural study in most cases. This is especially the case when linguistics can be made sense of given 2 different sets of cultural presuppositions.