Book review: “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scriptures Has Made Us Unable to Read It”

I came across this title in my Goodreads feed, and the title seemed very compelling to me: The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. The first half of the title reflects a common approach or expectation of the Bible among Christians, and one I am also familiar with as a Latter-Day Saint: the Bible should have all the answers to any problem you encounter, really. The second half points out a problem and hints at a solution: the very act of defending scripture has caused us to lose something of the essential purpose of scripture. I sympathize with this sentiment, because I have seen my share of Bible bashing as a quad-carrying LDS missionary. On my mission, Bible bashing was discouraged. After all, the Book of Mormon teaches that “he who hath the spirit of contention is not of me but is of the devil.” But this scripture is usually interpreted as a condemnation of an approach, not the attitude itself. After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the one “true and living” church upon the face of the earth, right? We’re still the one and only; we just have to be humble about it. Right?

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Mormons are familiar with the problem; after all, our faith is founded on the uncomfortable-ness of picking a position and defending it to the death. Joseph Smith wrote: “In the midst of this war of words and this tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all worng together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” The traditional answer to this from a Mormon perspective is: well yes, they were all wrong, and God was just waiting to call Joseph Smith to bring back the right one, and then he’d be right back in that war of words proclaiming the truth from the rooftops! To be honest, that answer doesn’t sit right with me. And I appreciated reading Enn’s book from a different faith tradition who has similar qualms about using scripture as a battering ram.

The central theme of the book is explained near the beginning by Enns:

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.

The Bible wasn’t written like an instruction manual. It has many authors, all who had different opinions, perspectives, and purposes in writing. Because so, if even has contradictions. If you tried to read it like an instruction manual, you’d probably end up pretty confused.

I really liked his analogy for navigating the Bible as territory to be explored:

Rather than a rulebook—and we seriously have to switch metaphors here—the Bible is more a land we get to know by hiking through it and exploring its many paths and terrains. This land is both inviting and inspiring, but also unfamiliar, odd, and at points unsettling—even risky and precarious. I believe God encourages us to explore this land—all of it—patiently, with discipline, in community, and above all with a sense that we, joining the long line of those who have gone before, will come to know ourselves better and God more deeply by accepting that challenge.

There were a few things I really appreciated about Enn’s approach. First, he shows a deep respect for the Jewish faith and their understanding of scripture. Increasingly, I believe that we Christians lose something when we strip the Bible of its original context. Understanding what the Bible meant to the people who lived by it and assembled it is essential if we hope to apply it to our own lives; sort of a “you can’t break the rules if you don’t understand them first” approach. One point that really struck home to me is Enn’s appreciation for Judaism’s acceptance of argument when it comes to doctrine. He explains:

The history of Judaism is a lively tradition of wrestling openly with scripture and coming to diverse conclusions about how to handle it. More so than the Christian tradition, Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silenced or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. Opposing opinions sit side by side as monuments to this wrestling match with scripture—and with God.

When Christians have a disagreement about scripture, they go off and found a new church. Judaism is flexible enough to preserve different perspectives within its faith tradition. I think we could learn a lot in our own churches about letting there be room for differences of opinion.

However, while he did show respect for Jewish approaches, there were times that left a bad taste in my mouth when he referenced ancient Israelites and their own faith. His basic approach was, the Israelites were like children who didn’t completely understand God yet. We’re a lot farther along, and we understand him better now. Passages like comparison of God to a father checking to see if there are monster under the bed:

Think of it this way. When a young child is convinced there are monsters in her closet, that’s all there is to it. Her father can either say, “Ah, grow up. There aren’t any such things!! (Dumb kid.) Let me open the closet door and show you nothing’s in there but clothes and toys.” That would be factually true, but of zero help to the frightened child.
By contrast, a father—one who passed his how-not-to-be-an-idiot-father test—would meet his daughter where she is conceptually and say, “Let me take a look.”
He’d open the closet door and close it behind him. He’d make a racket by knocking around some hangers and boxes and come out with an unbuttoned shirt, his hair messed up a bit, claiming victory. “I crushed them. They were crying and whining like babies. One of them looked at me and wet himself and ran away. They won’t be coming back. Now you can sleep safely.”
Likewise, God’s voice to the Israelites in the Old Testament meets them where they are. God allows himself to be talked about, worshipped, and trusted by the Israelites within the boundaries of that ancient horizon.

To me, this rings of hubris. Because we have more technology and we live in a “the future”, we are somehow better in our understanding of God? Couldn’t you just as easily infer that we are also lightyears away in understanding God, and in our own way, we ask God to check to see if there are monsters in the closet? I personally feel that rather than holding back a smile as we look at the ancient Israelites, we should respect their faith and their desire to know God. For the most part, Enns does so. Passages like this slip through though, and I needed to say something.

I also appreciated Enn’s acknowledgment of the limitations of a scholarly approach to scripture. For instance, his healthy skepticism of archaeological findings:

First off, I don’t worship at the altar of what archaeologists say, and neither should you. “Some of my best friends are archaeologists,” but, like a lot of academics, they’re not always right, they disagree with each other, they can have blind spots like the rest of us mortals, and sensationalized “discoveries” flood the Internet (“We found the fork Moses used at the first Passover!”). Some archaeologists even get pretty Rambo on you to protect their theories, which only adds to the hype.

He includes a few funny quips at scholars that made me laugh as a graduate student: “So where did the biblical story of the conquest come from? Good question, and welcome to the world of biblical scholarship (though you still need your ID card and decoder ring for full membership)“. In general, Enn’s book is a fairly easy read. He keeps it light-hearted. Some of his chapter titles alone give you an idea of the tone: “Why Don’t You Go Castrate Yourself,” and Other Spiritual Advice and Jesus Was Actually Jewish (Go Figure). While he leaves room for humor, I felt that he was also very respectful, and I felt edified while reading it, to use a Mormon term.

In his book, he includes a bit of an autobiography of his journey of faith centered around two (there might have been three, oops) key moments: the first was a quarrel between two friends, an atheist and a Christian. Both knew their stuff, but he realized that he didn’t know anything about his faith. He chose to read as much as he could starting out with C. S. Lewis (who also happens to be what got me started). The second moment was in a lecture on the Old Testament. The professor explains how some interpreters of scripture (including Paul in the New Testament) explained that the Israelites had water in their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness because that rock Moses hit? Yeah, it kind of followed them the entire way. It sounds kind of silly, but Paul lays out that interpretation in one of his letters. In that moment, Enns learned that scriptures aren’t trying to faithfully document the past, but rather are a reflection of present problems, and God revealing himself to us now. We are reading about the spiritual journey of real people when we read the scriptures. It isn’t the point that there are historical inconsistencies or bad scriptural interpretation.

I liked it because his story felt so much like my own. I could have written something like this. It feels uncomfortable, because you feel like, “Am I becoming apostate? Or worse, atheist? Am I following that liberal path down to hell?” That’s the narrative you grow up with. Enns explains similar counsel from his professors at a conservative Christian school: “Some professors cautioned us to mine only “safe” bits and pieces of what they said, and if we wandered too far down that liberal path, our confidence in the Bible would erode and we might wind up as atheists, warlocks, or worse—mainline Presbyterians.” I don’t think so. I think that you do open yourself up to some dangers, but you also learn that there are no spiritual shortcuts. You can’t rely on other people’s faith. You can’t prop your faith up on anything. It’s scary, but its the only thing that lets you mature spiritually.

Enns uses examples within the Bible itself to show that this re-interpretation of scripture is totally legitimate and needed. The first example is the Israelites during the exile and post-exile period who assembled the Old Testament. They took different approaches, as best exemplified in the differences in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles that document the same historical story, but address different needs of the Israelites who wrote them. The second example is the Christian re-interpretation of the entire Old Testament around Christ. The gospel writers did so, fully aware that the scriptures weren’t originally about Christ, but they were re-interpreting them around their newfound faith.

Finally, I wanted to note some of the thoughts I had with regards to a Mormon audience. Mormons have a bit more invested in the Bible. We acknowledge that the Bible isn’t 100% historically correct: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God in so far as it is translated correctly.” The assumption is, that if we had the original text, then we could in principle have a historically accurate reliable version. And since we have a prophet who can access that original version, then we don’t need to worry about historical inaccuracies anymore. We can know what God meant the whole time! For instance, Mormons believe that yes, there were indeed Christians before Christ’s birth, and the prophets DID prophesy of Christ. It wasn’t later Christians re-interpreting scripture to fit their faith. The Book of Mormon includes quotes from two lost prophets, Zenock and Zenos, who were more explicit in prophesying of Christ. The first 600 years of the Book of Mormon is about Christian believers before Christ was born. The Pearl of Great Price includes the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses, some of those correct but lost writings of those ancient prophets that were lost along the way.

How is a Mormon supposed to deal with such an interpretation? I will leave that up to other Mormon readers, but I think Enn’s approach meshes well with Terryl Givens’ understanding of the prophet Joseph Smith:

His prophetic vocation, in other words, involved visions, borrowings, re-workings, collaborations, incorporations, and pronouncements, with false starts, second-guessings, and self-revisions. Smith experimented with polyandry, then ceased; he implemented, then suspended a communalistic mandate; he dictated revelations, then subjected them to sometimes substantial, repeated revision. His self-understanding as a prophet included the ever present sense of his own fallibility, the need for intellectual struggle, an indebtedness to other flawed but gem-laden religious traditions, and inspiration as a continual wrestle with heavenly powers. He saw himself as neither the deluded charlatan of his detractors nor the airbrushed Moses of his latter-day adherents. As he so well captured his synthetic approach, context and history might provide him with “all the truth” but he had “an independent t revelation n in the bargain.” In other words, he clearly claimed the right to look to the present and the past, but also to reveal things never before a part of human knowledge. Restoration was an open-ended receptivity to all that God had ever revealed, and all that he would yet reveal.

Enns has written a really great addition to the discussion of scriptural interpretation. I won’t be surprised if it makes other’s uncomfortable. But you shouldn’t ever be comfortable in your faith. Highly recommend it!

Here’s a link to my highlights!

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