I have been waiting for this book from Peter Enns, and I am not disappointed!
In The Bible Tells Me So, Peter addresses what I consider, perhaps, the most harmful belief among some believers today—a misguided and mistaken understanding of reading the Bible that assumes that the words of the Bible are straight from God and represent the very voice and intent of God. This has been a huge issue among evangelicals since the 1970s as some began to recognize the Bible as an ancient document written by ancient people from their own times and cultures, while others passionately defended the Bible as God’s own word for all time.
The subtitle…Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It is very appropriate in regard to this continuing debate. And I believe Peter makes an excellent contribution on the side of understanding the Bible in light of its ancient origins. The back cover lists endorsement statements by well-known authors Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and others.
This Book is So Easy to Read
The style of The Bible Tells Me So is easy to read—and that Peter is a funny guy! He doesn’t tell us jokes, but his humor is pervasive; this is no dry, erudite tome for advanced theological students (Peter would never use the word ‘erudite’ in this book; probably would not use ‘tome’ either). Peter the scholar writes for normal people—he writes for us.
The format of the book is interesting and makes it even easier to whip through the 250 pages; in fact it is a page-turner. The seven chapters are divided into short sections averaging a few pages each. Even if you have only a few minutes to read you can cover a complete section in that time. But the sections are not disjointed; each section leads naturally into the next.
Peter Addresses the Issue
He begins with the ‘Problem’ and defines it on the first page:
Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.
This is indeed the view of many believers, and when it is questioned the knee-jerk reaction is often to ‘Defend the Bible!’ against these horrid attacks. But the Bible isn’t the problem, Peter says.
The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear…Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith.
Peter, himself, had these sorts of expectations and tells us how, by actually reading the Bible, he came to discard those expectations and take the Bible as it is. He begins to explain what he means by using the continuing story of the Israelites and the Canaanites in the Old Testament. I think all of us have cringed in reading about God’s orders for Israel to viciously exterminate the Canaanites—man, woman, infant, and beast—even if we conclude, ‘Well God is God, and he can certainly do what he darn well pleases! And the Canaanites were, after all, the Worst Sinners Ever!’
After careful consideration, Peter concludes differently (as I, myself, did many years ago):
God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.
In saying this, Peter is respecting the Bible’s ancient voice. The Israelites were little different in their perspective in this regard than the other ancient tribes around them–their gods were war gods and success in war meant the gods were pleased.
Stories have Power whether they are Factual or Not
Another problem with the Old Testament history is that much of it did not happen—at least as it is reported. An example is the massive conquest of the Canaanite cities in the time of Joshua. Archeology cannot confirm that it ever occurred; in fact the findings demonstrate otherwise. Many of the cities Joshua conquered show no evidence of such. Only a few show destruction from that time period and a number of them were not even inhabited at the time.
What gives? The information in the book of Joshua was not written by embedded journalists from CNN. Instead the stories were written down much later, probably after David became king and consolidated the Israelite people. The stories told of times of glory and of great heroes of Israel. Such stories provide identity and unify a culture. Story tellers shape the past to give meaning to the present. Every tribe and nation has such inspiring stories of their origins. Often they are greatly exaggerated; who’s around to contradict them?
What about the Stories of Jesus?
The New Testament does not tell us the story of Jesus. Rather what we have is FOUR stories of Jesus; and they are different. Peter says that:
The Gospels differ because their writers lived at different times and places and wrote for different reasons decades after Jesus lived. Each writer produced his own portrait of Jesus that captured the faith of the community he wrote for.
Interestingly enough, in the Gospels we also find that Jesus did not use the Bible the way many of us think it ought to be used! And he did that on his own—centuries before he read Peter’s book. For example, Peter sums up Jesus’ handling of Psalm 110:
We see here Jesus handling Psalm 100 in a very ancient, creative way. We might think he is “misreading” the first line of Psalm 110—and from the point of view of the writer of the psalm he is, since Psalm 110 doesn’t say what Jesus says it says.
Peter discusses some of the differences in the Jesus stories and what they mean, but the four accounts we have of Jesus’ life, teaching, and works do not suffer from being different. They reveal the impact Jesus had on his earliest followers and give us precious insight into who Jesus was.
Sticking to the Bible at every turn, like it’s an owner’s manual or book of instruction, as the way to know God misses what Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers show us again and again: the words on the page of the Bible don’t drive the story, Jesus does. JESUS IS BIGGER THAN THE BIBLE. [my caps]
The Bible as a One-Size-Fits-All Christian Instructional Manual
Because the Bible is not meant to be an instructional manual, Peter says:
Waiting for the Bible to “tell me what to do” means we’ll either be waiting forever, or we’ll wind up baptizing our bad decisions with a Bible verse that…has about as much to do with what we’re dealing with at the moment as a Shakespearean sonnet has for guiding roof repair.
But if the Bible is not an instructional manual, Peter suggests what the Bible really is:
- The Bible is God’s word
- The Bible, just as it is, still works
- The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith. (That position belongs to what God has done in and through Jesus)
- The Bible is not a weapon
I Wholeheartedly Recommend the Book
In this review, I am unable to touch on everything Peter says about the Bible. His observations and insights are so many and deep that perhaps no book can ever contain them all—except that one book does: The Bible Tells Me So.
I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who is interested in the proper way to approach the Bible. Be ready for a great adventure in understanding the Bible as it is.
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Have a great day! ~Tim