Book review: Peter Enns’ “How the Bible Actually Works”

For the purpose of full disclosure, I received an advanced free copy of the book from HarperOne in exchange for an honest review.

I had the unique experience this past week of being a part of Peter Enns’ launch team for his latest book 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. Whew, that’s quite the sub-title. From my past encounters with Enns’ works (see my review of The Bible Tells Me So here), I found his approach to the Bible refreshing, honest, and vulnerable– aspects that I think an up-and-coming Christian generation are yearning for. I didn’t expect anything less from How the Bible Actually Works. As another disclaimer, per usual, this isn’t a review per say (here’s what was good, here’s what was bad), but more of a thoughtful reflection with insights in my own life. Take it as you will.

The book covers quite a bit of ground, but Enns crafts it into one cohesive narrative, often to the point of being repetitive– but in a good way. Each point reinforces the other. He captures nearly everything inside the title itself. The three points he makes about the Bible are that it is

  • Ancient: because the Bible was written by and for and ancient audience, we have to take it in context before seeking applications to our own life.
  • Ambiguous: the Bible doesn’t always give clear-cut and easily interpretable answers, so be careful when pulling verses out to defend hard points of view.
  • Diverse: there are actually a variety, and often contradictory viewpoints in the Bible, but that isn’t an editing error; the Bible gives us examples of individuals following God and exercising wisdom: applying God’s will in situation-specific ways.

I was a little concerned by the title that Enns wasn’t going to add a lot to what he already covered in The Bible Tells Me So. And it’s true that he does build on themes in that book. But if I were to try to capture the difference, it would be that How the Bible Actually Works gives us positives (read the Bible like this) as opposed to negatives (don’t read the Bible like this).

I will say that How the Bible Actually Works will make a certain sub-section of Christians fairly uncomfortable. Some come to the scriptures with a very definite view of what the scriptures should give: a consistent picture of God, unchanging clear and definite rules, and there should be no embarrassing mess-ups or course corrections. This is especially true among most Latter-Day Saints where a literalist tendency is found, even if it isn’t explicitly endorsed. You will find differences of opinion, but try arguing that maybe Jonah wasn’t actually swallowed by a fish, and you’re bound to step on some toes. I wanted an example when talking to my dad about gospel topics. In on Sunday afternoon conversation, I was talking about a novel interpretation of the story of Noah I had read in a book by a Jewish rabbi Jonathan Sacks. When this brought up the question whether the Flood was a world-wide or local event, and I gravitated toward the latter, my dad got very touchy; he intimated that I was on shaky ground, possibly being blown about by every wind of doctrine, and the next thing you know, I could be denying a literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Latter-Day Saint doctrine, we understand that the Flood was a symbolic baptism of the earth. Latter-Day Saints baptize by immersion, so that means the entire thing had to be under water. My dad found it would weaken the meaning of the story if you took away the global aspect of it. I would anticipate that Christians in general would probably have similar sentiments when reading Peter Enns’ book if they harbor similar sentiments.

My Latter-Day Saint background on the Bible

Before diving into Enns’ ideas on the Bible, I wanted to emphasize some of my thoughts on the Bible that I bring to the table as a Latter-Day Saint. Latter-Day Saints aka Mormons have a unique understanding of the Bible that their fellow Christians, and may have qualms with Enns’ book for different (or maybe not so different) reasons.

First off, Latter-Day Saints will totally agree with Enns’ assertion that the Bible isn’t a perfect rule-book downloaded directly from heaven. In fact, most of our doctrine is built on this point. The entire motivation for a restoration of the gospel is that the Bible isn’t perfect, and cannot be replied upon to fully build a Christian community by itself. The Latter-Day Saint prophet Joseph Smith translated another ancient record the Book of Mormon that is meant to sit next to and establish what already exists in the Bible, making clear what wasn’t clear in the other text. For Biblical support, Latter-Day Saints cite Ezekiel 37:19:

Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.

The Bible being the stick of Judah, and the Book of Mormon being the stick of Ephraim. The Book of Mormon explains why the Bible isn’t complete on its own, due to changes during the long night of apostasy after the death of the apostles:

Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded out of the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded out of the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord… And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of a great and abominable Church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and precious, and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.

All this is summed up nicely in the fifth Article of Faith: We believe the Bible to be the word of God so far as it is translated correctly. In this respect, Latter-Day Saints aren’t going to be as shaken up if the Bible turns out to not be clear and unambiguous: it was expected to be so. But Latter-Day Saints are still prone to literal interpretations and rulebook mentalities due to a couple additional pieces. The first is the concept of prophets. Latter-Day Saints have a living prophet. In some respects, the prophet becomes the ultimate source of authority from God rather than the Bible. In a classic piece that is often repeated in general conferences talks, there are two points that are made quite clear:

  • The living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works [e.g. scriptural canon including the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants].
  • The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.

Perhaps this was more dramatically expressed by the second prophet Brigham Young:

Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: “There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day.” “And now,” said he, “when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.”

Prophets rather than the Bible are the non-negotiable element of Latter-Day Saint faith. In theory, if we lost the Bible today, we would not be lost as long as we had a living prophet.

The second element that adds another interesting twist is the doctrine taught since Joseph Smith’s day that the gospel of Jesus Christ is universal. Not only in the present sense that it is binding on all individuals, but that the gospel has never undergone any changes. Adam and Eve were baptized after leaving the garden of Eden and they were taught about Jesus Christ and his mission. If this isn’t obvious in the Old Testament, it’s because what we have has been edited out or lost. In fact, there’s a whole section of scripture called The Pearl of Great Price purporting to be lost records revealed to Abraham, Enoch, and Moses. One of the great tasks Joseph Smith took upon himself was translating the Bible: meticulously going through the extant version of the King James bible and making inspired edits.

The pursuit of wisdom

OK, so now onto how this has interesting interactions with Enns’ own interpretation of the Bible. One of the main points Enns makes is that the Bible wasn’t mean to be a clear-cut rulebook. In fact, sometimes it out-right contradicts itself. Enns first demonstrates this with a fascinating selection from Proverbs where two verses right next to each other completely contradict each other:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.

There’s a clear-cut rule for you, right? Well, which is it? Enns’ answer is that the Bible isn’t meant to give us one-size-fits-all answers, but rather is to teach us wisdom, which he defines roughly as the ability to read a situation, and apply the appropriate response in the moment. Perhaps what Latter-Day Saints would refer to as following the Spirit, but I like the emphasis on wisdom and re-centering the responsibility on us to work it out rather than an outside entity, something I think that is perhaps less emphasized in Latter-Day Saint circles.

Now, this is where I think things get interesting. Could Latter-Day Saints accept such an explanation? Can the Bible be ambiguous and diverse? I personally think so, and I don’t feel like I’m apostate. Maybe some think I am. See, according to Joseph Smith, the Bible would be entirely self-consistent and clear if we had the original record. His Inspired Translation is an attempt to get back at that. And it feels like whenever he came to an ambiguous or unclear point, he forced it to be clear. I think one of my favorite examples is what he does with Matthew 7:1, the Sermon on the Mount passage where we are commanded Judge not, that ye be not judged. Joseph Smith renders it Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment. It seems that in Joseph Smith’s view, completely refraining was not only impossible, but also not correct: you need to make judgments all the time. I mean, you need to call out doctrinal errors as you seen them, right? The common adage Hate the sin, not the sinner is the closest most Latter-Day Saints can get to being completely non-judgmental. Perhaps this clarification helps some people. But to me, it takes away the point Christ was making: he was purposely setting a standard that we cannot fulfill perfectly: loving your enemies? never even harboring an impure thought? Are any of us going to live up to this?

I find Joseph Smith’s attempt at making the Bible self-consistent a noble effort, and I think it adds a lot of new insights. It is a valuable document, but I tend to like to read other translations as well that I think add power and nuance.

Enn’s thoughts on wisdom brought a lot of other ideas to mind from other authors I’ve read recently. I think one that most closely mirrors this thought of situation-specific application is Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s dichotomy of saints and sages:

‘Walking in God’s ways’ therefore means involvement in society, which is why Maimonides favoured the sage over the saint. The sage is concerned with the perfection of society. The saint is concerned with the perfection of self. The sage knows that in any human group there are conflicts – of temperament and conviction, interest and ambition – and they can only be resolved by balance, compromise and mediation. That is the gift of the sage. His wisdom is to give each person and situation its due: to reward the good, discourage the bad and ensure that decisions are taken that enhance the group rather than taking the side of one individual against another.

The sage has the social virtues: justice, fairness, integrity, patience, a love of peace, an ability to hear both sides of an argument and weigh conflicting situations. He or she does not act out of emotion but on the basis of careful deliberation of what is best for all concerned. A zealot, said the Rebbe of Kotzk, cannot be a leader. To be a leader one has to cultivate those traits the Torah ascribes to God: compassion and grace, patience and forgiveness, and the other ‘attributes of mercy’.

In this model, Enns is modeling the role of a sage, using wisdom to build a better society. This sometimes is interpreted by others as caving into worldly expectations. But I think it is the best model of trying to live up to that Christian adage to be in the world but not of the world. It’s finding that right balance.

Another recent example I’m reading right now comes from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. He outlines how modern society lost something when they tried to oust equilibrium from the public sphere, something I equate with Sack’s model of a sage and Enn’s idea of wisdom:

We could call this feature an equilibrium in tension between two kinds of goals. On one hand, the Christian faith pointed towards a self-transcendence, a turning of life towards something beyond ordinary human flourishing, as we discussed in an earlier section. On the other, the institutions and practices of mediaeval society, as with all human societies, were at least partly attuned to foster at least some human flourishing. This sets up a tension, between the demands of the total transformation which the faith calls to, and the requirements of ordinary ongoing human life.

Two others I thought that fit in nicely here, but I won’t for space are Lowell Bennion’s dichotomy of the priestly and prophetic roles in religion, as well as Terryl Given’s idea of religion tension. I find it interesting that I have found a constellation of similar ideas recently, and I like piecing them together.

Adapt to survive

Another idea that Enns’ presents is that religious traditions have to be malleable in order to stay alive. He summarizes it so:

To honor tradition means adapting that tradition in order for it to keep it vibrant. It may seem totally counterintuitive, but you can’t really honor a tradition unless you are willing to change it. Survival is at stake.

I feel this is very true and wise advice. At its base, I feel like Mormonism can embrace such a viewpoint. The whole idea of a prophet is to give revelation for our day. So why can’t a prophet speak for our day? But balancing that is the idea that because God is unchanging, religion should be also. We should literally have the same exact gospel that was preached to Adam by the angel, no exceptions. The former idea was expressed beautifully by Kathleen Flake in her book on the seating of Reed Smoot in the U.S. Senate. At the time, Mormonism had experienced a stark change when they were compelled to give up polygamy. At the time, it felt earth-shattering: polygamy wasn’t only a practice: it was doctrine. She writes:

These three elements– a foundational restoration of Christ’s church from apostasy, a base of continuing revelation from heaven, and an assertion of Joseph Smith’s revelatory power and divine authority bestowed to those that follow– were the core elements of Latter-Day Saint doctrine and continued to frame the church’s identity within twentieth-century American denominationalism. In place of its nineteenth-century emphasis on theocratic and familial kingdom-building, the LDS Church was prepared by crisis to return to less grandiose but still large claims regarding restoration of the primitive church, divine sponsorship, and living prophets. These principles constituted the generative, and hence, nonnegotiable core of Mormonism.

It’s emphasis on prophets gave it the flexibility to go on. The structure made room for changes in content. And I still feel like Latter-Day Saint theology is flexible enough for more changes. Right now, Latter-Day Saints have experienced some pretty big changes all in a row. Our new prophet, Russell M. Nelson counseled saints to “Take their vitamins” because there are a lot more changes coming. How have they addressed or justified these changes? Let’s look at two examples. First, elders quorums were restructured to include both elders and high priests. When announcing this change, President Nelson said:

Today we announce a significant restructuring of our Melchezidek Priesthood quorums to accomplish the work of the Lord more effectively… This adjustment will greatly enhance the capacity and ability of men who bear the priesthood to serve others… These modifications have been under study for many months. We have felt a pressing need to improve the way we care for our members and report our contacts with them. To do that better, we need to strengthen our priesthood quorums to give greater direction to the ministering of love and support that he Lord intends for His saints.

President Nelson emphasized that a lot of research had been going on present to this announcement. It was well thought-out, and likely discussed in counsels. It feels like a different mode of revelation than biblical revelation, or even revelation through the prophet Joseph Smith. The second example I want to give is regarding the recent changes to the temple ceremony. The Church news site gives the following justification for the changes:

Over these many centuries, details associated with temple work have been adjusted periodically, including language, methods of construction, communication, and record-keeping. Prophets have taught that there will be no end to such adjustments as directed by the Lord to His servants.

This emphasizes that the changes aren’t necessarily doctrinal but merely administrative. And yes, these recent changes don’t feel earth-shattering. Other changes may happen, and the structure of prophetic revelation makes that possible. I was thinking back to the interview with former President Gordon B. Hinckley on Sixty Minutes when a caller asked about the likelihood of women receiving the priesthood:

Caller: Yes. Since we’re getting into the 21st century, President Hinckley, what is the chance that women may hold a priesthood in the Mormon church?

GBH: Well, they don’t hold the priesthood at the present time. It would take another revelation to bring that about. I don’t anticipate it. The women of the church are not complaining about it. They have their own organization, a very strong organization, 4 million plus members. I don’t know of another women’s organization in the world which does so much for women as does that, as this church has. They’re happy. They sit on boards and governance in the church. I don’t hear any complaints about it.
LK: Do you know why they can’t be priests?

GBH: Well, only that the Lord has not designated that they will be.

Hinckley didn’t close the door on the possibility. While a male priesthood is the precedent in Latter-Day Saint practice, it isn’t necessarily obvious that it is set in stone. In fact, there are many clues that it is only a temporary practice rather than an eternal principle. It is also interesting that Hinckley couldn’t cite a reason for women not having the priesthood other than God said so.

On the other hand, change can be a bitter pill for some to swallow in the Church. My dad has had a hard time with the Church being much more open about the stains in its history. One extreme example is Denver Snuffer, who takes changes in the Church as a sign of apostasy. He says:

The leadership of LDS Mormonism has increasingly ignored and replaced the commandments and revelations given through Joseph. Today, members fall in line as church leaders provide their commandments and direction. The result is an increasingly altered form, varying greatly from the original. Gordon B. Hinckley institutionalized a public relations based management style for LDS Mormonism. The opinion polling and focus group testing for decisions and campaigns have increasingly taken hold until now, LDS Mormonism is changing at a stunning pace, reflecting shifting public opinions. The LDS Mormon tradition now repudiates its history, curtails its curriculum, and discards essential elements of its earlier belief system to be more popular.

I have to agree with Enns on this one that flexibility and change are ultimately good things. They are signs of a living faith, rather than a dead one. Enns does take a nuanced position, posing the question, how much can you change before the tradition is no longer the same thing? The whole paradox of Theseus’s ship.

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