The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns (Review)

Growing up as a Christian, there are a variety of subjects from the Bible that lead any thinking person to ask questions eventually.  How does the creation story relate to modern science?  How could the God revealed in Jesus command the extermination of the Canaanites?  What about all those other weird, even horrific and immoral, rules in the Bible?

A variety of answers are available, some more and some less satisfying.  Peter Enns, in his book The Bible Tells Me So:Why Defending Scripture Has Made us Unable to Read it, offers his answers to these questions.  This is one of those books that can be both liberating and confusing at the same time.  The answers Enns offers are liberating in helping the reader realize that such answers are acceptable within a serious Christian faith.  At the same time, they are confusing because you realize that many other Christians will see such answers as questionable, perhaps even un-Christian.

For example, the Canaanite genocide is often explained by saying that God is just and can judge whomever he wants whenever he wants.  All people deserve judgment and it was their time, the answer goes.  I have found this answer both true and satisfying at times.  At the same time, it often leaves a lot unsaid or unanswered.  Sure, God can judge people of evil.  But does this include viciously exterminating even children?  Enns’ answer is to question whether God actually commanded this.  The Bible is an ancient book written by ancient people.  They, as we do today, filtered their views through their culture and worldview.  In those days it was common for gods to command extermination of enemies.  So the Israelites thought this was what God wanted.  As Christians, with our clearest revelation of God in Jesus, we realize God does not command exterminations of people.  To avoid making God appear schizophrenic, ordering death and execution on one page and commanding we turn the other cheek on the next, Enns’ reading realizes the human element.  So we do not need to spend loads of time and reams of paper trying to reconcile these two contradicting views of God.  As Christians we read scripture through the lens of Jesus.

Enns’ book is helpful and challenging.  To some, he is tossing out too much and ought to be considered a dangerous heretic.  To others, he is offering liberation from awful views of God, perhaps allowing people to remain in the faith who were going to walk away.  At the very least, he has offered a helpful book for Christians that will make any reader think deeply about who God is, how God speaks and what God demands.  And  if our faith truly is centered on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus then we should be willing and able to debate and discuss the sorts of things Enns discusses here.

Enns’ main point is that rather then defending the Bible we need to let the Bible be what it is.  It is a waste of time to try to prove the historical truth of various stories or to prove that all the stories in the Bible portray Jesus alike.  Instead the Bible reflects different people’s stories from various times through history.  And that’s okay.  Enns argues that God loves stories.  So God wants these stories in scripture, even if their picture of God is not correct.

I think Enns’ book is really an argument for a form of progressive revelation.  All Christians accept that through scripture more of God’s character is revealed.  There is a fuller understanding by Paul then by Moses, for example.  Where Enns differs is that he is more open to saying that Moses’ view was wrong in light of later understandings.  Other Christians would try to hold earlier writers as correct in what they said with later writers extending these truths in deeper ways.  Perhaps the question is, does Jesus contradict and overturn what came before (not all of it) or does Jesus extend and fill out what came before?

From a practical standpoint, I wonder how to teach Enns’ view in the church setting.  I imagine my experience is typical – I learned the stories as a kid, took them as just the way things happened.  Later in life I relearned them, coming to realize things were not as simple as when I was a kid.  Perhaps this is just the way it is and there is really no other way to learn the Bible.  This is personal to me, because I have a three year old daughter.  Sometimes we read story books of Noah and the flood.  Eventually she might learn about Joshua and the battle of Jericho.  How does Enns’ understanding play out in a child’s sunday school room?  For example, do we simply teach our kids that Noah’s flood covered the whole earth and later on teach that maybe it did not literally cover the whole earth?  Do they have to learn at one point only to unlearn and relearn later?  Or do we try to bring some of that nuance into a children’s classroom? And how would we do that?

That aside, this is a fantastic, funny and engaging book.  I want to emphasize that it is readable.  To some degree this book reminds me of Bart Ehrman as Enns is seeking to make mainstream scholarship accessible to the church.  But where Ehrman does so as a skeptic, Enns does so as a Christian.  For that reason, Enns and his work is valuable for the church.

 

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Untrumpable by Kevin Moore (Review)

I first heard of this book when the author was a guest on the radio show Unbelievable.  In that episode he debated an atheist on the merits of his updated version of Pascal’s wager.  I was not impressed.  Being a Christian  myself, it was somewhat uncomfortable to find myself agreeing with the atheist.  At times I thought the atheist guest was too nice in his criticism; he could have gone farther and really torn the argument down.

A few days later I saw that the book was on sale on Amazon and it was less than 100 pages.  I figured I’d read it to try to get a better grasp of his argument.  To my surprise, the more I read the more sympathetic I became to Moore’s argument.  Having read the book, I think he simply did not do a good job presenting the primary points on the radio show.

Taken as a whole, Moore is arguing that a wise person will choose the path that avoids the worst sort of end.  In other words, in a godless universe the worst end is simply death but in a universe with god there is the distinct possibility of life, and judgment, after death.  So the wise person ought to live as if there is a God in the hopes of avoiding this afterlife punishment.

One vital point in grasping Moore’s argument is that he is not talking about belief.  He is not saying that you ought to believe in God, or the Christian faith, to avoid hell.  Part of the reason for this is that Moore says changing your beliefs is not that easy.  You cannot simply choose to believe differently then you do, all of a sudden.  I think this is one common critique of Pascal – if you are told to believe in order to avoid hell, are you simply expecting to lie about what you believe?  Would any God accept such a fake belief anyway?

For Moore, the point is to live as if there is a God.  I recall the specifics of how this living might play out were left sort of vague.  The point is that while it is not easy to change what you believe, you can change the actions you take on a daily basis.  As your actions change and you build new habits, it seems Moore is confident in the idea that you will over time come to faith in God and change of belief.

Throughout most of the book Moore’s language remains vague, talking only about God.  Near the end he shares that he is a Christian, which is certainly not surprising to any reader.  I think this does reveal one flaw in the book.  Moore seems to desire to offer an objective argument, seemingly apart from his own personal faith commitments.  I do not think such a tactic is wise.  I could go on a whole tangent here, but I’d rather just point those interested to the works of people like Myron Penner and James K.A. Smith.

Moore is a professional philosopher and I am not even close.  But I have read Charles Taylor and I think what he says about this sort of objectivity is apt.  He talks about how Christian apologetics, in an attempt to appeal to skeptics, ends up giving us such a watered down God that rejection of this God is not difficult.  Smith, in his book on Taylor, summarizes Taylor’s position (Honestly, I do not have the book in front of me and I cannot recall if these are quotes from Taylor, or summaries by Smith):

“The scaled down God and preshrunk religion defended by the apologists turned out to be insignificant enough to reject without consequence” (53)

” The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity – as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice” (51)

Another problem in the book, potentially, is that traditional Christianity would not give us a God who accepts the wise person who chooses to live as if there is a God. That person would appear to be pursuing salvation by works.  Moore’s version of Pascal’s wager is still not going to lead to salvation, on traditional terms, for the hypothetical person who takes the wager.  Moore might respond, as he did on Unbelievable, that he is not offering a “Christian” argument.  If so, tht is precisely the problem.  If we are Christians it does no one any good for us to hide that fact in hopes of slipping Jesus in the back door.

Along with that, a wise person may recognize that simply choosing to live as if there is a God is not enough.  Such a person may recognize this as merely Deism.  Why not go the next step and choose the religion whose hell is the worst, in order to avoid the worse punishment?  Perhaps Christianity gives a tame enough version of hell to reject in favor of some other religion?

Finally, like I said, I am no philosopher.  But I have read Pascal’s Pensees and I think there is an important order to how Pascal presents his arguments.  Pascal did not lead off with this argument.  Instead he brought it in at the end, after realizing that both a universe with god and a universe without god make equal sense.  In this quote Pascal says that both sides may be valid and reasonable:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

For Pascal, at least as I understood in reading, it was when you came to this point, where reason seems to fail in offering a way forward, that you bring in the wager.  If both a world with god and one without can make sense, logically, then move beyond logic.

On Unbelievable the atheist guest was not at this point.  He found a universe without god unreasonable.  Moore plowed ahead with the updated wager argument.  The atheist had no problem ignoring it because he saw no evidence for a god.

Overall, I do appreciate this book and think arguments like Moore’s do have a place.  There are flaws in it, but applied in the right situation it may be helpful.

 

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The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark (Review)

When people begin to list the many faults of the Christian church throughout the ages, the crusades are right at the top of the list.  The image of barbaric knights journeying to the middle east and slaughtering Muslims is not uncommon.  Rodney Stark argues in God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades that we have the crusades all wrong and that this is not the story.

I have enjoyed Stark’s books in the past.  The Rise of Christianity is one of my all time favorites and many of his other books are also great.  That said, I found this offering somewhat disappointing.  Perhaps the main problem is that the book does not deliver what the title promises – there is no “case” for the crusades.  A better title would have been along the lines of, “a case for why the crusades were not as bad as you have heard.”

Stark sets out to tell the story of what really happened.  For example, the crusaders are seen as evil invaders, encroaching on Muslim lands.  Stark shows what any student of history ought to know – the lands were only Muslim lands because the Muslims had conquered them from Christians over previous centuries.  It is often argued that the European crusaders were barbaric and uneducated while the Muslims were honorable and chivalrous.  Stark demolishes this claim too.  He shows that the reason why the crusaders were often so successful, at least early on, was more advanced military technology.  Things like heavy calvary and the crossbow allowed smaller crusader armies to win victories they ought not have won.  Stark also shows that the crusaders were no more brutal then the Muslims when it came to sacking cities.  Too often historians ignore the Muslim atrocities of this period and emphasize the crusader ones.  Saladin, the Muslim leader, is often praised for allowing the Christians in Jerusalem to leave after they surrendered. But in those days the rule of war was to allow surrendering people to desert their cities.  If they resisted and forced a sieging army to storm the walls, then murder and rape ensued.  Saladin engaged in such acts on cities that did not surrender.

To some degree, Stark’s book is a big effort to show the crusades were a response to Muslim aggression (“you started it”).  The crusades were a response to Muslim advances rather than unprovoked attacks.  Further, in the face of the claim that Muslims have never forgotten the crusades, Stark shows that until the early 1900s the crusades were not high in the mind of Muslims, they kind of were forgotten.

Yet all of this is not really a case “for” the crusades.  He shows that what happened is different, and perhaps not as bad when put in historical context, as what most think.  But he does not provide a case for why the crusades were a good idea, which is what I expected.  Or to be more blunt, he never offered any sort of argument for why people who claim to follow Jesus, the Jesus who commanded his followers to love their enemies, ought to have gone warring against those of other religions.

The closest he comes is a discussion on the Church of Peace and the Church of Power.  The Church of Power came to prominence after the conversion of Constantine.  Those who still wanted the intense, living like Jesus, form of discipleship found a place in the church of peace.  The Church of Power set about running the world.

Perhaps it is harsh to criticize Stark for writing as a historian and not a Christian theologian or ethicist.  Maybe he didn’t even choose the title.  But in light of the title, it would have been very beneficial to include a discussion of whether crusading is a good idea for Christians today.  It seems somewhat blind to offer a case for the crusades that happened 800 years ago without mentioning how such a case plays out today.  We live in a world still filled with religious warfare.  Should Christians see fighting and killing others as a God-blessed thing?  Stark’s book alone could be seen as arguing yes – if crusading was a good idea then why is it not a good idea now?

The mere fact that such a conclusion could be drawn shows why Stark needed to add a chapter on what he thinks about war today.  Crusading and religious war is never a good idea.  Stark does show the crusades were not as bad as we have been told but in light of Jesus we Christians should not settle for “not as bad as”.  Instead we should strive for a much higher ethic.

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Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson (Review)

A few weeks ago my three year old daughter and I went to the library to check out some books.  Usually she heads right to the section with Curious George while I peruse the kids books, looking for new and fun stories.  Lately she’s been randomly grabbing books off the shelf and declaring she wants them.  Surprisingly they are usually quite good.  I don’t recall if she grabbed it or if I did, but we ended up with Scaredy Squirrel.

We took it home and read it.  It was hilarious.  Poor Scaredy Squirrel is terrified to leave his safe tree and journey into the unknown.  He has all sorts of contingency plans for when and if he is threatened.  Of course, when a bee flies by he forgets all his plans and dives out of his tree for safety.

A funny kids book and nothing more, right?  Well, at the same time we got this book, I was working on Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning.  A good chunk of his book is about how humans live in the midst of two worlds – the known and the unknown.  We learn and grow by encountering the unknown, as scary as it is.  The story of Scaredy Squirrel is a fun illustration of what Peterson was talking about, I actually flipped to the front to see if he had authored it.

I first heard of Peterson’s book from a friend.  My friend reads a ton of books and has introduced me to many great writers.  On Facebook a while back he shared the ten most influential books he had read and this was one of them.  I added it to my list.  When I finally got a copy and set out to read it was a challenging and delightful feast.  Peterson draws on various fields, from science to religion.  He brings them all to bear on his field, psychology, in a discussion of how mythology, the stories we tell, influence how we view the world.  To put it another way, none of us sees the world objectively, as if the world is just objects out there which we all perceive.  Instead we inherit maps of meaning from our ancestors which shape how we see the world.

There is a lot of good in this book.  The only drawback is that it could have been more concise as Peterson tends to repeat himself and ramble at times.  Overall though, this is a fantastic book.

 

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The River of Life by Lee Harmon (Review)

In his first two books, Lee Harmon took a creative approach to biblical interpretation.  Rather than a usual commentary, he wrote stories set in the days of the beginning of Christianity.  Through these stories, he illustrated how the gospel of John and the book of Revelation may have come to be written.  Both books are enjoyable as stories and provide historical context.  They also hint at (sometimes more than hint at) Lee’s form of liberal Christianity.

Lee has a new book, The River of Life, in which he seeks to better explain what liberal Christians, such as himself, believe about the Bible and Jesus.  This book is short and personal.  It is also engaging and a good read.

The first chapter is a discussion of heaven and hell.  This chapter is strong, but also points to the problems and challenges of such a book.  As I read I found myself in agreement with much of it, as Lee sought to show that the common conservative, and traditional, view of eternal conscious torment is not the best supported view in the Bible.  Yet many non-liberals would agree with Lee’s case here.  Certainly the traditional view still holds sway in much of “conservative” Christianity but there is much more diversity then Lee seems to allow.

This is even more apparent which begins with a paragraph describing “conservative” Christianity as holding to dispensational theology (think Left Behind).  While holding a non-traditional view of hell may lead to ostracism in many conservative circles, there is much more diversity on the topic of Jesus’ return.  You can find conservatives all over the spectrum.  The seminary I attended was very conservative but few professors (perhaps none) had time for rapture nonsense.  You can find conservatives who hold to all sorts of views from preterism to amillennialism.

Lee clearly paints with a broad brush, a necessity of a book under 100 pages.  And Lee is very hopeful, looking for people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide to reach across and join hands for the greater good.  Yet if Lee is looking for fundamentalists of the variety he often targets (those who hold to Left Behind theology, for example) to embrace him, he is destined for disappointment.  If he hopes to find friends among other conservatives, perhaps there is more cause for hope.

When I read what Lee writes about the Good News, the Historical Jesus and other topics, I find a lot to applaud.  I also find things to disagree with.  For example, Lee talks about the gospel emphasis on making life better on this side of the grave.  I agree wholeheartedly with this.  While Lee does not deny that the Bible speaks about an afterlife, he is skeptical about the existence of such.  I would respond that it is both – for as much as salvation is about this world, there is great hope for the next world too.  And while Lee is right in being critical of Christians who solely wish to be whisked away to heaven, I’d bet it is Christians with a strong view in an afterlife who have done the most good in this world.  It makes me think of a CS Lewis quote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

For me, the hope and trust that God will complete our work, that the breaking in of the kingdom of God is not solely based on human effort, is motivation to work for it all the more.  Perhaps this is another place where Lee and I would differ – we both want to work for the kingdom of God in this life, but I have faith that this work will be completed whether we fail to reach the goal in our lives or not.  Of course, at the end of the book Lee speaks about God helping us in our work.  So maybe even here there is hope for agreement, enough agreement to get to work, that is!

Like I said above, there is a lot to agree with and disagree with in this book, as well as a lot to think about.  Many conservative Christians will throw this book out the window, deeming it as errant theology and liberal drivel.  If that is all you get from it though, that is unfortunate.  I hope you see a good book written by a man with a heart to bring Jesus’ vision to fruition in this world.  Heart is the right word, in this book we see Lee’s heart.  So maybe we disagree on theology and doctrine; we disagree on things in our head.  But if we can agree on our heart, that is a step in the right direction.

 

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Undiluted by Benjamin Corey (Review)

Over the past year or so I’ve enjoyed reading Ben Corey’s blog. He seemingly burst onto the Christian blog scene, going from not having a blog to having tremendous readership. This shows that he is striking a nerve, whether that nerve is one of people who agree with him and eagerly share his posts on social media, or those who disagree and see him as someone doing harm to the Christian faith.

He is not doing harm to the Christian faith. What he is doing harm to is the Americanized version of the Christian faith that transforms Jesus into a flag waving general leading troops onto literal battlefields to kill the bad guys or metaphorical battlefields to take back America for Jesus. Many of Corey’s blog posts point out the flaws in such Americanized Christianity. For example, he recently had a post about taking down American flags in churches.

His book Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, serves as a testimony from Corey of how he got to where he is today and a foundation for the sort of Christianity he promotes on his blog. Basically, this book seeks to return us to the Jesus we find in scripture who preached a radical message which confronts any and all peoples. Corey shares how this message confronted him, getting quite personal in his stories about adopting his kids.

As I read I found myself wanting to follow the Jesus that Corey was writing about. You could say that Corey accomplishes what he set out to do as the reader will certainly rediscover Jesus. I highly recommend this book to any Christians. I could especially see this book being read and discussed by college students. It is the sort of book that Christians could read and be challenged by, but that their friends who are skeptical about faith could also read. Such books that appeal to both groups are few and far between, and are also a blessing.

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Mississippi Praying by Carolynn Renee Dupont (Review)

Were Christians in Mississippi opposed to integration in the 1950s and 1960s merely due to their cultural influences? No, argues Carolynn Renee Dupont in this fantastic piece of history.  Against the common assumption that religious beliefs were incidental and mostly unrelated to their racism, Dupont shows that it was the religious beliefs of these people that fueled their fight for segregation.  They believed God blessed segregation and opposition to the institution was something only liberal types would pursue.

This is a tremendously important book, on the level of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  These historical debates inform the debates we are having today, because though the issues have changed the hermeneutics of the two sides have not.  As Noll showed in his book, it was conservative religious people who wanted just a plain reading, a literal reading, of scripture who supported slavery.  Abolitionists, for the most part, were seen as on a slippery slope away from orthodoxy.

One hundred years later and the echoes are obvious.  Those who supported segregation read the Bible in the same way as those who supported slavery.  Orthodox conservative Christians had a tradition and felt it was liberals who were straying from orthodox belief who opposed God’s desire for races to be separate.

Perhaps most disturbing is how Dupont points to the roots of contemporary conservative religious politics.  Those who supported segregation continued reading the Bible in the same way, even after segregation was off the table.  They found new battles to fight, though their weapons were the same.  Which leads me to wonder, if this way of reading the Bible has been on the wrong side twice in the last 150 years, in two of the most major moral debates in our nations history, perhaps that ought to be a bigger strike against it today then it often is.

I suspect we simply don’t know our history.  Saying we believe the Bible is literal and the truth is plainly there in the proof-texts is much easier.  It is important to know this past, to know that how we interpret the Bible is not neutral or new but has hurt people and simply been wrong in the past.  Which then leads to the question, how do we read and interpret the Bible today?

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