“The Bible Tells Me So” – Book Review 5

By the way, it has been pointed out to me that my unscientific recap of Jane Austen-themed works foolishly omitted the film “Clueless”, an excellent updated version of “Emma”.  Including it would have helped to redress the balance away from the otherwise rather dominant “Pride and Prejudice.”

Anyway, on to the review.  I have been reading “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made It Impossible For Us To Read It” by Peter Enns, published by Harper Collins.

This book was lent to me by a friend.  Before I started reading it, I was leafing through, as you do, and I came on a passage (page 95) dealing with the power-struggle after King David’s death, describing it as a “truly unfortunate political mess”.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I find this a very interesting section of Kings, so I at once thought, “Finally, someone who sympathises with Adonijah!  I’m going to like this book.”

And I read it, and I did like it.

But it occurred to me that one should be wary of favourably reviewing books, especially iconoclastic books (is that the word I want?)  just because one is sympathetic to what they say.  This reviewer is always tempted to think some combination of:

Thought 1. This book is giving me permission to think daring thoughts I want to think.  Therefore I want to praise it;

Thought 2. This book is daring and unsound.  Therefore I want to criticise it, so that people won’t think I’m unsound also;

Thought 3. This book is clever.  Therefore I want to find something to criticise in it, so that people will think I’m clever also.

It’s probably safe to say that you should read all my reviews with these thoughts in mind.

Back to Peter Enns.  I looked on his website, www.peteenns.com, and on Wikipedia, and I discovered that he is an academic who had to leave Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania because he was not thought to be sufficiently orthodox.  I also learned that he has written many other books.  They are classified on the site as “Books for Normal People” and (the academic ones) “Books for Abnormal People”.

“The Bible Tells Me So” is one of the “normal” ones, which probably explains the very jokey style, but I’m not sure I like the segregation, or the suggestion that hard theology is for the abnormal.

As to style, CS Lewis’ popularisation of man-in-the-street theology books probably has a lot to answer for here.  I have already complained about Rob Bell’s public address style books, and “The Bible Tells Me So” is written in a way that may please or annoy, or both.  A chapter heading “Jesus Gets a Big Fat ‘F’ in Bible”, for example.  Mentioning a Babylonian myth as “Enuma Elish (gesundheit)” is just silly, especially when the author has already referred to Enuma Elish and promised to get back to it.

However, let’s not get tied up in stylistics.  It’s an easy read, and also very learned and thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Enns’ thesis is that the Bible is not a rulebook nor a book that has to be completely internally consistent, and that we should trust God and the Bible enough to be happy with it being neither of these things.

His book is carefully and logically arranged.  However, I found it helpful, when reading, to keep firmly in mind the pattern set out in the first chapter on page 25, which kind of explains the Contents list better than the Contents list does.  Enns begins by explaining his own history.  He felt he was being taught something too silly to believe, and he had to choose between ignoring this, insisting on defending it, or striking out for a different approach.  The first chapter is therefore called “I’ll Take Door Number Three”.

He then has three chapters analysing particular difficulties he had with the “Bible-as-cut-and-dried-and-unquestioned” approach – the slaughter of the Canaanites in Joshua (chapter 2: “God Did What?!”), the doubt that there may be about the historicity of some of the narratives in both Old and New Testaments (chapter 3: “God Likes Stories”), and the arguably contradictory descriptions of God and the good life, in particular contrasting Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job (chapter 4: “Why Doesn’t God Make Up His Mind?”).

See what I mean about the style?

I found this pattern helpful, because these are the kind of problems I have with the traditional evangelical view of the Bible, much more so than whether God made the world in seven days or not.

(But see Thought 1 above.)

I must confess to finding it satisfying to have the arguments that are used to justify Biblical genocide torn down, and his particular reference to Numbers 31:17-18, where the Israelites kill all the males and all the non-virgin women, as an act of vengeance for the Moabites tempting them to immorality.  I remember reading that passage when I was a child, and reflecting that if mine had been one of the Moabite families, I would have been the only one of the five of us left alive.  I was too young to reflect much on what would have happened to me.

Enns then goes on to argue that what he calls the creative approach to history taken by Biblical writers is mirrored by Jesus’ creative take on the Old Testament, a take He shared to some extent with Jews of his day (chapter 5) and by Paul’s, once he had realised that the whole of history and Scripture and the entire world revolved around Jesus, and therefore not around Torah and Israel (chapter 6).

Unlike Rob Bell, as far as I have seen so far (Bell endorses the book on the cover, and Enns recommends “Love Wins” in his admirable-looking reading-list) Enns is prepared to look at some bits of the Bible, and say, “Umm… No.”

I thought Enns makes a lot of fascinating points, although I was not entirely convinced by all of them.  I had not noticed before the OT pattern of preferring the younger to the older son, from Abel onwards, but when pointed out this becomes stunningly obvious.  Yet Enns seems to think that this applies to the Bible’s (and God’s?) preference for the kingdom of Judah as the younger kingdom.  In what possible way is Judah younger than Israel?  Similarly, he says that Hosea’s statement that “out of Israel I called my son” is a reference to the Exodus, nothing to do with the future, and Matthew’s application of it to Jesus is “reading into the text” to present Jesus as a new Moses.  But surely it is an evangelical common-place to look at the prophets, and see one meaning or fulfilment at the time, and another to come?

(See Thoughts 2 and 3 above.)

The most crucial point for many will be whether Enns is correct about Jesus’ attitude to the OT.  Read him, read the gospels, and ponder!

So… after all this… he concludes “The Bible carries the thoughts and imaginations of ancient pilgrims and, I believe, according to God’s purpose, has guided, comforted, and informed Christians for as long as there have been Christians.”  No Christian is likely to disagree with this.

He goes on, “But this God of the unintelligibly huge, immeasurably small, and incomprehensibly old creation is not fully captured or constrained by those words.  He can’t be.  And we don’t need astrophysics or electron microscopes to tell us that.  The Holy Bible does that already.”

And that, I suppose, is where he wants us to start, both in reading the Bible, and in our lives with the living Jesus.  The book is not long enough for him to tell us how to do this.

I am too ignorant to know if there are a lot of other books saying much the same as this one.  This is challenging, accessible, and I found it absorbing and thrilling, and it encourages Bible reading as well as Christian living.  But I have found it helpful to be rereading John Stott at the same time as a counter-balance!

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Clint Redwood

    8th July 2016 at 6:01 pm Reply

    Regarding the thoughts:

    I think questioning “Though 1” is very important, especially when our thinking is moving away from conventional opinion. It is always good to ask “am I right because I have seen something new and/or different, or is conventional opinion right”? Often conventional opinion is right, but not always, and it’s important to remember that you might just be right, and others wrong!

    A great example of this, in the late 19th Century, the Newton’s laws of motion, which were considered infallible by all informed opinion at the time, were suddenly found not to be working in several areas, primarily the orbit of Mercury. If people had disregarded this new problem, because they “knew” the laws to be true and therefore they must have been wrong (i.e. “Thought 2”), we wouldn’t have relativity or quantum theory now.

    There is another “Thought” one may have, which I have found dangerous and unhelpful: a spiteful “you only think that because it suits you, or because it’s easier for you” kind of thought. This kind of internal challenge isn’t concerned with steering you toward truth, but undermining any confidence in your own critical faculty and should be resisted and disregarded.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    8th July 2016 at 6:13 pm Reply

    You don’t seem to be doing very much of Thought 2 and according to Alan Darley, Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and Origen you do seem to be advocating a rather unorthodox position. St Augustine and other early writers presumably didn’t have too much trouble accepting the concepts of slavery, punishment by stoning to death, or attempted genocide as these were just accepted as the normal way for humans to act at the time. Society has moved on even in the last 60 years so that it has now become quite normal to bandy about terms such as astrophysics or electron microscope – concepts that would have been quite alien to most people at the time of the Queen’s coronation. Concepts of international law have also moved on so that it was quite acceptable for a British Prime Minister to order the invasion of Iraq in 1916 in order to replace its government but not in 2016. In talking about divorce Jesus said that Moses provided instructions about the procedures for divorce because of the “hardness of men’s hearts” not because He approved of divorce – “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder”. I would like to think that as men’s (and women’s) hearts become a little less hard they are more receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and so we are slowly and uncertainly moving towards a better understanding of God’s nature. Admittedly this is not uniform or continuous. You only have to look at the recent car bombing in Iraq or the shooting of police officers in Dallas to feel that Old Testament style revenge killings are still looked upon by some people as acceptable today.

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