On the cover of his newest book, Peter Enns — a former evangelical religion professor who has been accused of heresy by his traditionalist critics — promises a “revolutionary way of understanding the mission of the Bible.”
He delivers. Although his concepts aren’t entirely new — he introduced some of them in his 2014 The Bible Tells Me So — Enns makes a strong case for seeing the Bible as a volume that was never meant to give us clear answers to life’s most important questions, at least not directly. And he throws in plenty of his unique style of sometimes-self-effacing-but-not-always-really humor as a bonus.
The book’s title is about as long as they come: How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us To Wisdom Rather Than Answers — And Why That’s Great News. I think I’ll stick to calling it “the book” in the rest of this review.
(Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher, HarperOne, with the expectation that I would share my honest opinions, good or bad, about the book on social media. It will be published on February 19. And the company encouraged me to use the hashtag #wisebible, among others. So there it is.)
So here’s the premise: As the book’s title says, the Bible is ancient, ambiguous and diverse. It also has contradictions along with “history” that seems to be written to promote an agenda rather than presenting anything objective. Oh, and some of the “answers” it gives seem to be limited to a particular time and place, such as Paul’s admonition that women shouldn’t speak in church.
So we shouldn’t go to the Bible expecting to be told how to live our lives, at least not in so many words. After all, the Bible writers didn’t see what they were writing that way. Old Testament writers may have warned about eating meat sacrificed to idols, for example, but Paul said, in effect, “Never mind.” But not always.
And the writer in Proverbs 26:4 advises not to answer a fool according to his folly, but the very next verse says the exact opposite.
What the Bible is all about — again this is in that long title — is wisdom. As Enns says in The Bible Tells Me So, the joy of the Bible isn’t found in accepting what it says as the final word, but in recognizing it as the story of what its writers thought about God. “We follow the lead of these writers not by simply reproducing how they imagined God for their time, but by reimagining God for ourselves in our time,” he writes in the new book. The result? We won’t see God the same way its writers did, but we will see God and experience God anew through the eyes of our own culture and who we are today.
It all makes sense to me, and the more I read this book the more I found myself seeing it as common sense. As Enns says, the Bible simply wasn’t meant to be the final answer, nor does it claim to be.
I expect that readers who are ready for this book will love it if they aren’t put off by the writing style that somehow combines levity with graduate-level tidbits, especially in the footnotes. (Sometimes I liked the style and sometimes I didn’t.) But if you’re convinced that the Bible has clear answers and that it should be understood more or less literally, you may be ready to throw the book in the trash by the second or third chapter. And you’ll probably be thinking of Jeremiah 17:9, reproduced here from the King James Version:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
That’s because Enns is expecting Bible readers themselves to provide the answers that the Bible itself won’t directly provide, and many of those with a traditional view of the Bible also grew up in churches where they were taught that the Bible was needed because we can’t be trusted to figure out the truth on our own, thanks to original sin and all that.
And that’s the weakness that traditional believers will find in the book: Enns embraces ambiguity and may even see that embrace as essential for spiritual growth. But he never really explains how to understand the ambiguity. Or maybe he does. Or maybe it’s impossible to do so — after all, isn’t the point of recognizing ambiguity to explain why there aren’t definite answers?
In any case, while I saw ones of Enns’ earlier books, The Bible Tells Me So, as flawed when I read it, it changed the way I looked at the Scriptures and helped me find value in portions that had long bothered me, such as the tales of divinely sanctioned genocide. As I mull over How the Bible Actually Works in coming months, I expect that it too will give me further appreciation for those ancient writings that serve as one of the cornerstones of my faith.
Photo by Barney Moss/CC BY 2.0.