Friday, July 26, 2013

The B-I-B-L-E

I am one of those people who just grew up reading the Bible. It may not sound surprising to people that an ordained person did this but I was not always ordained, nor did I grow up thinking I would become an Episcopal priest. I read the Bible because it was central to my Christian formation. I had a Baptist grandmother who insisted that the first step was to memorize the books of the Bible - kind of like learning scales if you want to play the piano. In Sunday School, and at Vacation Bible School, I sang "the B-I-B-L-E, yes that's the book for me..."

And then at just the right time in my life when I needed it, as a college student attending a Jesuit University, I had the opportunity to take my first "academic" Bible course - addressing questions that had emerged for me along the way. Amazingly, this journey began with Jouette Bassler, who would become one of the editors of the Harper-Collins Bible. This encounter allowed my journey to continue in new and exciting directions. By the time I got to seminary, I was pretty sure I would continue my studies in a New Testament PhD program so I took all the Greek and New Testament courses I could at Drew. My love of the Old Testament came much later, when I discovered Walter Brueggemann, who opened door after door into parts of the Bible I had been taught previously to read only as "prelude." For the past twenty years or so this journey has continued as a preacher and teacher and EfM mentor, living into the rich narrative of both testaments and inviting others along on the journey. Out of all that, I continue to hear "a Word of the Lord." And then I came full circle when I was given the opportunity for several years to teach the Bible to college undergraduates.

I realize that this is not a typical journey, even for people who have grown up in the Church and even for many clergy. One of my friends once told me that he thought the Bible was taught in our theological schools like it was some kind of hazing, leaving stunned clergy who had learned just enough to know how little they knew, and therefore ill-equipped and fearful about teaching the Bible in critical ways to their congregations. I don't know if that diagnosis is correct or not but I do know that even among faithful Episcopalians it is hard to find people in the pews who have a level of confidence when it comes to opening the Bible.

In moving books from home and office to a new home and new office this summer, I came across Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About The Bible: Everything You Need To Know About the Good Book But Never Learned. It was published in 1998. When I found it on my shelf, I was not certain how I came across it and the first thing I did was to look inside to see if someone had loaned it to me and I'd forgotten to give it back. But there was no name there. I did not recall reading any reviews of it at the time, but I brought it along with me this past week to the beach.

I have not learned a single new thing from it. It is not an earth-shaking or radical book. But this is it's great strength; it is what it claims to be. It's solid. It's written for people who did not have a Baptist grandmother - or who did but did not have a course in college to balance that out. It's a book for open-minded people who want to know more. (I read some of the reviews and not surprisingly a few fundamentalists did have strong, visceral reactions to this book. If one insists on believing that the earth is 6000 years old or that every word of the Bible was dictated directly by God, this is quite frankly not the book to read.)

Davis' style is conversational, and sometimes his sense of humor gets in the way. It reminds me a bit of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization - in both cases I admire the writers' skill at taking a great deal of information and making it feel like you are sitting down over a cup of coffee to patiently talk it all through, without sounding pedantic.

As I said, I didn't learn anything new. But this is not a criticism. When I used to teach the Bible to undergraduates I'd ask them to buy the New Oxford Annotated Bible and we would begin by reading the rather challenging essays at the front of that Bible that most people usually skip over, about textual criticism and translation and the history of Biblical criticism. I always had to promise my students "it will get better when we get to texts, but this stuff matters." The first chapter in Davis' book, had I known of it, would have been a better-than-adequate substitution for those essays. It covers all that ground, but in a far more accessible manner.

In fact this is the great strength of the book: that he is not a Biblical scholar mired in the details. He has done his research and writes well. This is not the last book anyone ought to read about the Bible. But it is a  very good place to begin for people who wish to go deeper, people who have questions and are ready to move beyond what they did or did not learn in Sunday School. And it's the kind of book you can read on the beach. I know, because that is where I've been reading it.

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