I am reposting this review because the kindle version is on sale for $1.99. Before the sale I had planned on re-reading this book and it is on my very long list of books I want to re-read. My review would likely be more positive today and I think many should seriously consider the book. The current edition also has an extra couple chapters which I have not read that address some of the initial complaints about the book.
Takeaway: The purpose of the bible is to tell a story God wants us to hear. It is not an instruction manual.
There are many books that I would get everyone I know to read if I could. This is not one of them. I do not want to be heard wrong, but there are many that will not get this book and will be left worse off for reading it.
Christian Smith has a provocative thesis. Essentially he says that in the attempt to hold scripture against the modernists, many Evangelicals have become “Biblicists” and have placed on the bible a role that Smith believes is inappropriate. Some biblicists have replaced the Holy Spirit with the Bible as the third member of the trinity. Some Biblicists use the bible as a rule book or instruction guide and attempt to force a single view of theology on it. Others try to reconcile all of the issues within scripture and create a bible that was written primarily for the 21st century understanding of history, science and theology.
He summarizes the problem as Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. As Christians if we believe that scripture is God’s word (dictated by God) then we should have a single interpretive framework and it should be easier for us to agree what the Bible actually says. Smith says that is clear that we do not have that, so instead we have Christians creating frameworks and then pushing the evidence of scripture into a particular framework. His best illustration of this of a bunch of puzzle pieces without a picture. Many people make many different pictures out of the pieces, but no system uses all of the pieces or creates a whole picture.
Overall I agree with many of the complaints that Smith has. But I believe that he is needlessly antagonistic toward many that would benefit from reading this book. The tone of the first half is fairly harsh and while I understand why it is harsh (he seems to have been hurt and somewhat persecuted because he is trying to push through and find a real understanding of scripture that fits with the evidence that he finds in scripture), I still think that if he had a co-writter or editor that had helped tone down that rhetoric a bit, it would have been a better book. I believe that there are enough intellectually honest Evangelicals that a presentation of the evidence really would be enough to convict many.
The second half of the book is Smith’s attempt at solving the problem. 1) Smith says we just need to get over the fact that there seems to be contradictory points in scripture. He encourages us to view scripture progressively. In the example of slavery, scripture does not condemn slavery, but does move in the direction of increasing human rights and pushes the cultural boundaries of the times when scripture was being written. So over time, most Christians have come to believe that scripture really does lead us to condemn slavery, even if the condemnation is not explicit within the pages of scripture.
2) Smith believes that scripture should be read Christologically. The way we should understand all of scripture is by looking at it through the lens of Christ’s incarnation. Scripture is the story of God’s creation, the fall of humanity, God’s choosing and work through Israel, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection and God’s work in the church and the hint of Christ’s future work of his second coming and the recreation of Earth under Christ’s future reign. (This is very similar to the way NT Wright says we should understand scripture.) Smith believes that looking at scripture Christologically will diminish (but not eliminate) many of the minor issues that are debated among Christians.
3) His third point is that we need to read scripture in community. For Smith this means converting to Catholicism to maintain a interpretive framework around scripture to prevent errant readings. The vast majority of Evangelical readers will not do this (and he really does not talk about it here, but this is what Smith has done.) I wish he had written a bit more about this third suggestion. In general, I agree with it, but the problem I see is that some will chose church community options that allow them to reject the teaching of scripture that they find inappropriate or difficult. So Southern Baptist Churches broke away from Northern Baptist churches because of a different of understanding about slavery. Lutherans and Presbyterians have a different understanding of the sacraments. The result of a greater lay reading of scripture is that we have at least 35,000 different denominations now. But I still think that he point is basically right, even if it is not specific enough.
There are several other suggestions that I think are useful but less important (deciding what beliefs are more important, get comfortable with mystery, stop looking for all information within scripture and allow for more understanding of general revelation, etc.)
On the whole, I really think that Smith make some good points about how we inappropriately use the bible. My problem with the book is that he is better at tearing down the inappropriate use of scripture than building up the appropriate use of scripture. (I think that is just part of the problem. It is harder to do it right than it is do complain about others doing it wrong.) I also am a bit concerned about the tone, but others that I have read this with were less concerned about the tone. So maybe it is my problem more than the books problem.
I have read this after reading a number of other books on scripture recently. If I had not read Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, Peter Enn’s Inspiration and Incarnation, Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and The Challenge of Jesus, and others I do not believe I would have been ready to read and receive the message of this book.
- Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did and Why He Matters by NT Wright
- Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns
- Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures by Jaroslav Pelikan
- Scripture and the Authority of God by NT Wright (Second reading)
- The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton
- The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by NT Wright
- Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Undertand the Bible by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien