Old Testament scholar Peter Enns published a great book last week.
There are five reasons you should read his new work, The Bible Tells Me So:
1. Enns is hilarious.
And not just for an OT scholar, which isn’t exactly a high bar to cross. (Even though Stephen B. Chapman is really funny too!) Just take a look at some of Enns’s great chapter subheadings:
- “Don’t Quote the Bible at Me, Please. I’m God.” –God, to Job and His Friends
- Good News! Our Leader Was Executed by the Romans! Come Join Us!
- “Why Don’t You just Go Castrate Yourself,” and Other Spiritual Advice
His jokes don’t distract from the heavy issues he wrestles with throughout the book. His humor helps you digest and remember his arguments. He reminds me of a great line from George Bernard Shaw:
If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.
Enns’s jokes help you connect with him and process his message.
He also reminds me of something Dr. Ruth—yes, THAT Dr. Ruth—told me in college: “A lesson learned with humor is a lesson retained.” Humor helps folks absorb material.
2. He’s a great teacher.
As I’ve said elsewhere, “verbosity is not a virtue.”
Enns’s clear writing is a breath of fresh air. In the land of academics who can’t communicate their ideas to popular audiences, Enns is king. He’s kind of like half-nosed Chris Farley in Dirty Work: “They say in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king, well in the land of the skunk the man with half a nose is king!”
No matter how much you’ve studied the Bible, you will learn something new from The Bible Tells Me So.
3. He does a great job communicating his thesis:
The Bible is an ancient document, so we shouldn’t have modern expectations of it. The New Testament authors employed creative interpretations of the OT to focus on unexpected good news—God acting in Jesus to save Jews and the rest of the world.
The Bible is an ancient book. Expecting it to follow modern notions of history and science is as anachronistic as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s machine gun version of Hamlet.
The Bible is an ancient book, written by ancient people, that God uses to help us grasp Jesus.
What does that mean?
Enns encourages you to let the Bible speak on its own terms. He writes that the biblical authors use the “past to serve the present.” The biblical authors were ancient historians. They were more concerned with shaping the past to serve their present situation, instead of detailing the past with absolute precision.
As Enns observes, the Bible has two different histories of Israel’s monarchy. One version is in Samuel and Kings, and another version is in 1 and 2 Chronicles:
The two stories differ because they were written at different times to answer different questions. . . . They weren’t trying to pull a fast one, nor were they sloppy. That’s modern thinking relying on modern rules of history writing. These two biblical storytellers shaped the past— created it to a certain extent— because their present circumstances demanded it. . . . Seeing these two different versions of Israel’s story side by side can take some getting used to. If college students wrote history papers taking liberties like this, they’d get an F and have to redo it. . . . The biblical historians were historians in an ancient sense of the word. We ask, “What really happened? Let’s get the facts straight.” . . . But this is not an ancient approach to recalling the past.
Enns isn’t saying there is zero modern history in the Bible. He’s just saying that offering a 100% historically accurate report wasn’t always the main concern.
The four Gospels, for example, are like four paintings of Jesus from four different perspectives. They’re all paintings of a real person, but they’re all looking at him from different vantage points and painting him for different groups of people. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when there are differences between the Gospels.
The New Testament writers were trying to come to terms with Jesus. He blew away their expectations of what the messiah would be like. No one in Jesus’ day expected the messiah to die, let alone rise from the dead. The NT authors ransacked the Old Testament, and they reinterpreted many passages to speak to their unexpected encounters with Christ.
For them, the solution of Christ revealed the problem of humanity’s sinfulness. Paul, for example, used creative interpretations of the OT to drive home this point. (Consider Romans 5:12-21, where Paul reinterprets—and expands—the Adam and Eve story in light of Christ.) In Jesus, Israel’s God had acted to save Jews and the whole world from sin and death.
4. He doesn’t shy away from the Bible’s toughest passages.
In fact, he spends an entire chapter early on in the book about the conquest of the Canaanites. I appreciated this focus because reading Joshua is a shocking experience, like when Kramer touched a super hot towel in Seinfeld.
5. He stresses that the Bible’s about Jesus; it’s not a rulebook dictated from God.
Contrary to what others may say, the Bible is not a rulebook:
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. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to “defend the Bible” against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag— fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes. What I discovered, and what I want to pass along to you in this book, is that this view of the Bible does not come from the Bible but from an anxiety over protecting the Bible and so regulating the faith of those who read it.
Instead, Enns writes that the Bible is about Jesus:
As theologians tell us, the Bible, in various and complex ways, “bears witness” to Christ. That is the Bible’s role, to encourage the faithful to live in its pages in order to look up from the pages and, by the power and love of the Spirit of God, see Jesus.
To borrow Ray Barfield’s pithy phrase, “the Bible isn’t a manual, it’s about Emmanuel.” That is, it’s about Jesus: God with us. Jesus explains this idea in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”
For more on this theme, see an excellent book by Christian Smith: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
Overall, The Bible Tells Me So is a fantastic, entertaining read. I definitely don’t agree with everything he says, but you simply can’t afford to be ignorant of the ideas and biblical scholarship he discusses—no matter where you fall on the theological spectrum.
Nicolas Cage book rating scale: Con Air