In the Bible, ‘Individualism’ and ‘Collectivism’ Aren’t Neat and Tidy Categories

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Characters in Scripture don’t “follow their dreams.” But some do stand out from the crowd.

I love watching Bollywood movies. What could be better than three hours of delightful singing and dancing, colorful settings and costumes, sappy romance, and a dash of slapstick humor? Every Indian knows you watch these films for the music and dancing, not the plot. Most of the time, the plots are the same: A guy falls in love with the girl from the wrong side of town (or vice versa) and can’t marry her because his parents arranged for him to marry someone in his social class. Somehow, the story eventually gets to a happy ending, but however that happens, the guy always has to reconcile with his parents.

Why? Because family comes first—before love, before business, before “following your dreams.” Indians (and Indian Americans like me) get this, but some of my white American friends wonder what all the fuss is about. Be yourself! Listen to your heart! Follow your dreams!

E. Randolph Richards and Richard James have written Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes to help educate modern Western Bible readers about the collectivist value system of the biblical world. The underlying assumption behind this book is that many moderns interpret the world through a lens that centers on the desires, needs, and values of the individual. (Richards and James insightfully quote A. A. Milne’s Piglet in his distinctive dialect: “The thinks that make me different are the thinks that make me ME.”) Whereas collectivist societies in antiquity and around the world today orient their values around the family and the people group.

Collectivist Dynamics

Richards and James lay the foundation for understanding collectivist cultures by emphasizing how these cultures use honor and shame as tools for reinforcing …

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