THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO:
WHY DEFENDING SCRIPTURE
HAS MADE US UNABLE TO READ IT
Geoffrey W. Sutton
Bloody violence, talking animals, mysterious beings, rules for slave holders, and managing your bodily fluids challenge anyone who makes a New Year’s resolution to read the Bible. I could have used a book like The Bible Tells Me So when I was a teenager attempting to make sense of this holy book I was dutifully bound to read. And in those days, the Bible sounded even more removed from my reality in the language of Shakespeare.
Even with modern translations, some old stories still sound quite strange and leave an intelligent inquirer wondering about what kind of God kicks people out of their home for eating a bit of fruit, changes his mind about creating people because they’ve turned out so bad, or orders his people to kill an entire tribe of other people so his tribe can have their land?
Peter Enns offers some answers in seven easy-to-read chapters. The problem with the Bible isn’t the Bible. The problem contemporary readers face is understanding a collection of ancient texts free from a defensive posture created by religious leaders who do not take challenges lightly. In Chapter 1, Enns invites us to interact with the text and appreciate how ancient people understood God and their spiritual journey.
The bloodthirsty warrior God appears in Chapter 2. He’s the one who scared the hell out of children who, like me, grew up in fundamentalist homes. You knew God meant business, because he killed, or ordered the killing of, men, women, and children who were from other tribes. And he even killed off his own people when they stepped out of line (remember the flood and other stories). By the time we get to Jesus’ talk about a loving heavenly father, we may wonder what kind of love are we talking about?
So, how does Pete deal with the big killer question?
“God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” (786*)
I’ll comment on this later. It’s a big deal.
Chapter 3 is about ancient stories. Enns reminds readers that people tell and retell old stories based on imperfect memories and how the storyteller interpreted past events. The stories were told with a purpose that gave meaning to their present time and served “to persuade, motivate, and inspire.” (1085)
Peter offers a number of examples of different narratives about similar events from the Gospels and the Old Testament. He helps readers think about the big picture by explaining that the Old Testament was written during the period of the monarchy and exile. The early origins stories introduce the main story, which is Israel’s monarchy, exile, and return.
In Chapter 4, Peter explains why the Bible isn’t an owner’s manual explaining how to do life. Examples from what appear to be conflicting advice in Proverbs help make the point that wisdom is needed to deal with particular situations.
Jesus’ way of interpreting the Bible is the subject of Chapter 5. Enns illustrates how Jesus gets creative when he interprets old texts in terms of his present situation. This creative way of looking at the old text was not unique to Jesus. But Jesus stood out based on his claims to identity and authority. A quote offers a useful summary of Jesus’ way of introducing new perspectives: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” is hard to square with a rulebook view of the Bible.” (2501)
In Chapter 6, Enns focuses attention on Jesus as the key to understanding what the Old Testament is about. The gospel stories introduce Jesus as the saviour of Israel—the one who will make good on the old promises and the one who is superior to the Roman Caesar. He adds Paul’s interpretation that the gentiles are now equal with the Jews before God and in Jesus all have freedom from the old laws. This requires faith in Jesus that what sets people apart as people of God is not circumcision but love evident in how people treat others.
Enns ends it all in Chapter 7. Readers are challenged to make an “attitude adjustment.” On the one hand, Pete writes “The Bible is God’s Word.” But on the other hand, he asserts: “The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith.” Enns draws attention to God and God’s work in Jesus as the centre of faith.
I recommend The Bible Tells Me So to all those Christians who have become disenchanted with literal, or near literal, interpretations of the Bible that produce feelings of being trapped, fearful, guilty, and struggling to make sense of ancient perspectives on science, history, and how God works in people’s lives. As a bonus, Pete’s writing is easy to read, provocative, funny, and snarky.
I recall a Christian professor commenting on the horrible murderous things God did to people in the Old Testament. I suggested, as a psychologist, that it seems a lot like war propaganda. The stories governments would come up with to convince their men to fight because God is on their side. And to convince the enemy that they, and their gods, are no match for what our God can do. Perhaps, it’s not unlike children having faith that when the chips are down, they can count on their dad to whip the opposition. I don’t claim to be right. And I was pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful reaction of the professor. It is hard to make sense of the God Jesus described as a loving father if the same God is not exactly prolife a few centuries before Jesus. In short, Enn’s presentation of the Warrior God should be helpful to those looking for an explanation that makes sense of the alleged atrocities.
Enns points about interpreting the old stories may also help people avoid the futile efforts of trying to find ways to match biblical understandings of the world and the universe to the ongoing discoveries of modern science. Peter’s call for readers to be careful about their expectations of the Bible is on point. Reading very old texts with expectations that they are like contemporary history or science books doesn’t make sense.
Enn’s doesn’t say much about the fallibility of human memory and that’s ok—his expertise lies elsewhere. He doesn’t ignore the fact of problem memories. Fortunately, even evangelical scholars like Craig Keener are aware of the limitations of memory established by psychological scientists like Elizabeth Loftus. The problem of memory is just another important factor to consider when reading ancient texts based on distant memories of events. The limitations of human memory do not detract from the obvious history of the Bible as an enduring source of inspiration unless readers insist that all the writers had perfect memories.
I am inclined to give Enns some slack for his comments in Chapter 7, which I noted above. Considering the Bible as God’s Word and then saying it is not the centre of faith is a bit of a stretch. So much depends on how one interprets the phrase “God’s Word.”
In one sense, the notion that the Bible is God Word suggests an untouchable sacred document that cannot be challenged. In fact, modern fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have elevated the Bible to a lofty place as if it were God. Of course, each Christian group reserves the right to interpret God’s Word for their group creating a foundation for doubt about what it might mean to say something is “God’s Word.”
I see Enns phrasing here as a way of taking the edge off his unfundamentalist approach to biblical interpretation. Given the first six chapters, Enns’ view of the Bible is not at all like the perspectives offered by Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. And that is why Enn’s book is worth reading.
Enns, P. (2014). The Bible tells me so...why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. New York: Harper-Collins.
* The numbers in parentheses represent location numbers in the Kindle Edition.
About Peter Enns
Peter Enns has a PhD from Harvard University along with other degrees. His recent CV identifies his position as professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
About the Reviewer
Geoffrey W. Sutton is a licensed psychologist with a PhD from the University of Missouri. He is the author of A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. He has worked as a clinician and research professor. Now he studies and writes about psychology and religion. He no longer provides clinical services.
Please check out my website www.suttong.com
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