The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns, New York: Harper One, 2014, 267 pp, $12.78 paperback.
What do you do when the Bible doesn’t behave? Well, if you follow the lead of Peter Enns, you decide that the Canaanite genocide never happened, that the creation narratives were designed by post-exilic writers to justify and support Israel’s national identity, and that stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels were embellished in order to underscore the broader implications of Jesus’ life and work. The Bible, after all, “is not a Christian owner’s manual, but a story – a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations” (163). As such, it contains differing opinions about God, representing the changing views of His people throughout the centuries. Author Peter Enns contends that understanding the Bible as an ancient document, inspired by God yet not devoid of ancient (mis)understandings and creativity, is “worth reading and paying attention to, because this is the Bible God uses, as he always has, to point readers to a deeper trust in him” (232).
Reading a book like The Bible Tells Me So was both enjoyable and troubling.
On the one hand, Enns’ style of writing is engaging and playful, often comical, and moves along swiftly. The (usually) short chapters (often only 2 or 3 pages) keep the narrative from getting bogged down or feeling overly pedantic. Additionally, his encouragement to approach the text on its own terms, and to appreciate the culture, literary style, and motivations of the authors is important for serious students of the Bible and presented in a way that is accessible to lay readers.
On the other hand, the book does have some serious weaknesses.
The first of these is that it often presents a view as the certain or majority view when this is not necessarily the case. For example, when discussing biblical archaeology, he begins the section with the assertion that “Biblical archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen. . .” (58) while there are certainly a number of scholars for whom this statement is true, the point certainly has counterarguments that Enns would likely relegate to the desperate reaching of over-zealous fundamentalists trying to protect their theological turf. Unfortunately, this tactic borders on committing the ad hominem fallacy, and will mislead some and disgust others, thus undermining the book’s value.
The second weakness of the book is that it ignores the possibility of a Divine meta-narrative to explain the links between different periods of biblical history. At several places in the book, the earlier stories in the Old Testament are said to have been created or embellished in order to justify or support Israel’s later national identity. What this fails to take into account is the possibility that, if God indeed inspired Scripture in the way that historical Christianity presumes, and if He is indeed working throughout history, then it is entirely plausible that the foreshadowings Enns attributes to the Bible’s human authors are actually divinely instituted.
The third difficulty is that, if the Bible is indeed as Enns makes it out to be, and if its central narratives are simply constructions of ancient peoples, then on what basis would one believe in a historical Christ? This is not a problem for a non-Christian author, but for Enns, who is a Christian (3), an explanation of how his Christian faith is grounded in the Bible he says we have would have been helpful.
All in all, The Bible Tells Me So offers its readers an enjoyable romp through the pages of Scripture, but it is a journey that ought not to be embarked upon by one who is looking for a coherent understanding of God’s Word. While it starts well enough, it over-plays its themes, fails to deal with the reality of a transcendent God, and may leave its readers wondering, “How, then can I believe any of it?” Were these problems remedied, it may actually have something important to say but, as it is, it misses the mark.
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