This is it. Finally. This is the time you’re going to read the Bible cover to cover. Even Numbers? Especially Numbers. You tell yourself that after the season you just experienced, a fresh discipline for your spiritual walk will do you good. The Bible is God’s Word and taking it seriously will do you good.
But you know how it goes. Genesis and Exodus go pretty well. Leviticus and Numbers are a little more difficult, but you power through. But then by the time you hit Deuteronomy, you’re starting to wonder if you’re really cut out to read the Bible all the way through in a single year, and it’s not even March yet. You decide to try Infinite Jest again instead.
That’s understandable. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is a complicated book. We take classes on how to read Shakespeare and Dickinson — it’s not surprising that reading the Bible might take a little extra effort too. But one thing that might be tripping up your Bible reading has less to do with the content itself than the way we approach the content. It’s a way of reading the Bible through a collectivist lens — something that would have been second nature to the Bible’s original audience but is utterly foreign to most contemporary Americans. But if we can learn how to shift our perspective away from individualism and see the Bible through collectivist eyes, we might not only find a richer understanding of the Bible, but a healthier overall spiritual life too.
That’s the theory of Dr. Randy Richards, provost at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He co-authored Misreading the Bible With Individualist Eyes, which applies his years of experience and research towards helping Western Christians understand some of their own internal biases that shift the original meaning of some significant biblical teachings.
“The Bible really matters,” Richards says. “It is the Word of God, and it needs to have authority over our lives. If that’s true then I need to read it better. And since it was written by collectivists to collectivists, then understanding collectivism better will help me to read the Bible better.”
“It doesn’t mean I turn into a collectivist,” Richards continues. “But I do want to try to read The Bible well.”
Richards is an avuncular man, a born professor with a knack for illustrating complex ideas with metaphors and stories. He’s generous too. He doesn’t want people to think he’s “bashing” the idea of the West, which he says is a “gift” to the Church in many ways. But he says there are “certain things we would understand better” if we could learn to use a collectivist approach to the Bible.
“I have a friend who said the easiest way to find out if you’re a collectivist is to answer the question: Would you allow your parents to arrange your marriage? If the answer is no, you’re an individualist.”
Richards says the U.S. and Great Britain are so individualistic in nature that “we make the rest of the individualist cultures look collectivist” in comparison.
Richards says another way to tell you’re an individualist is to think about how you tell people about yourself. Most Americans start off with whatever’s unique about themselves: their job, their hobbies and interests.
“But Collectivists will talk about what group they’re a part of,” Richards says. “For example: ‘I’m the son of so and so, and the son of so and so. I’m from this clan and I’m part of this major group.’ Things that aren’t ever going to change.”
As an example, Richards talks about a time when he was in Asia, addressing a group of college students. He wanted to tell them to “toughen up” but realized that their culture not only had no word for that idea, but no real interest in it. Conversely, being “tough” or having “grit” is seen as a moral value in the U.S.
Richards says that having an individualistic context actually can be helpful for understanding certain parts of the Bible, especially when it comes to deeply personal concepts like forgiveness. But in other ways, hyper-individualism distorts some of the original intentions.
“We use metaphors to illustrate things, but collectivists use them to explain things,” Richards says. “Jesus uses parables not to illustrate some point he made. It was his point.”
This is where the lens of collectivism can help readers understand the Bible and their relationship with God in a bigger way. Richards says that while we tend to approach parables looking for a personal takeaway, the writers of the Bible aren’t trying to tease out a metaphor. They’re referring to cultural moments that would have been widely understood.
As an example, Richards refers to Jesus’ words in John 17, when he tells the disciples “I no longer call you slaves, I call you friends.”
“We think, ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet? Jesus is my friend. He’s the old buddy from out of town that I pat on the back,’ Richards says. “But ‘friend’ meant a lot of things in the ancient world. Almost never ‘your best buddy.’”
Instead, Richards says that the disciples would have understood “friend” in a much different way. “It’s a lopsided friendship,” Richards says. The idea of moving from “slave” to “friend” was common in the ancient world. When masters freed slaves, the slaves would often remain in the family as a “freedman.”
“They just had a new relationship in the family. They were now a freedman — that’s what Jesus was referring to — but we misunderstand it because we read the term through our individualistic sense of, ‘He’s my friend.’” Richards says a better english word might be “client” or even “patron.”
“They were expected to be grateful and they were expected to be loyal,” Richards says of freedmen. “That’s why, every morning, I should be at this friend’s door, asking what he needs of me. It’s that kind of relationship.”
This idea of long term loyalty isn’t just unusual in our individualistic culture — it flies in the face of our notion of things like freedom and liberty. But in a collectivist culture, being freed into a new understanding of servanthood makes sense.
“I was in a conference in Beirut of Middle Easterners and Westerners,” Richards says. “And it was on this idea of patronage or being a patron in the Bible. The Westerners always talked about patronage negatively, and the Middle Easterners always talked about it positively. The Westerners wanted to figure out: How do we, as Christians, get rid of it? And the Middle Easterners were asking: How, as Christians, do we use it? It was fascinating. But Paul was using those terms to indicate what our relationship to God is like.”
As more and more people immigrate to the U.S., collectivism will become a bigger part of the American identity. And while the Americans aren’t always known for humility in the presence of other cultures, Richards says the American Church has a lot to learn from the growing number of collectivists sitting in its pews. “If we’re going to be good neighbors, we need to understand them,” he says. “We don’t need to expect them to turn into us. We don’t turn into them, either. But we need to try to understand them.”
“We want to try to understand and value and treasure the parts they bring to us,” he continues. “The Lord’s table has plenty of room for all of us.”
This is key to understanding Richards’ point. He doesn’t expect people to become collectivists, or even to read the Bible exclusively as a collectivist document. He just thinks American Christians should learn to use collectivism as another lens to use for their Bible reading.
“The idea is if we can read the text better, then we can understand The Bible better, and we can become better followers of Jesus,” Richards says, “which is the ultimate goal.”
So when you tackle your Bible reading plan and you’re finding it all getting a little stale, consider a new perspective. It won’t change what you’re reading, but it might just change what it does to your spiritual life.