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Someday I’d like to buy a crate of books to hand out to Christians who are experiencing acute and painful doubt — who, if my personal experience and network are any indication, are legion. The point of the reading will not be to convince them that Christianity is true, but to offer a companion for the journey. If I had to pick only one recent book for that crate, it would be Christian Wiman’s A Bright Abyss. But if I got to pick two, I’d include Peter Enns’ latest book, The Bible Tells Me So. And if I had to pick the perfect book for Christians who hail from an evangelical culture and whose doubts are driven primarily by their experience of reading the Bible, Enns’ book would fill the whole case.
The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It is now the best contemporary book for that troubled class of evangelicals who are raised on scripture verses and who, inevitably it seems, encounter serious doubts when they begin to examine the Bible closely. I spent my angst-ridden twenties looking for a book just like this one, and it didn’t exist. Sure, scores of books address hard questions about the Bible’s veracity and reliability. But the most useful ones are in your neighborhood School of Theology library — which, come to think of it, you probably don’t have. And if you do, you probably don’t want to read the books inside it. For readability and relatability — for a book you can share with most anyone questioning why the Bible doesn’t seem to behave as a pervasive Christian Bible culture tells us it will behave — Enns’ book is the place to go.
I’ll spare you another account of the Bible’s oddities here; suffice it to say that many is the believer who has turned to the Good Book for comfort, wisdom, and inspiration, and found it to be an inconsistent delivery system. They are told the Bible is One Thing — a clear and timeless account of God’s love — and when it turns out to be Something Else Entirely — an ancient text filled with curiosities and disturbances — the experience can be searing, even life-changing.
Early in The Bible Tells Me So, Enns tells his story of making a discovery of these issues for the first time. He was a Bible college graduate and passionate reader of the text who was studying for a doctorate in religion at Harvard. One day while listening to a professor recount a surprising connection between a certain Old Testament story and a New Testament passage, Enns experiences a kind of epiphany: The Bible is an ancient artifact. Perhaps the Bible is sacred, even divine, but the text is also replete with signs of its age, its original culture(s), its experience of being manhandled. Immersed for years in Bible-believing cultures, Enns had been confident that he understood the Bible. Suddenly, the scriptures were made strange.
Enns says he saw two doors of possibility: Door #1 was pushing the questions aside in favor of blind acceptance, and Door #2 was boning up on conservative defenses of the Bible against all opposition. Both are live options, and most Christians know people who have walked through one or the other. But Enns also saw a Door #3: “I could face what I just saw, accept the challenge, and start thinking differently about the Bible.”
Hm. Lucky him. In my experience, Door #3 does not appear so easily for all Christians who have a wtf-is-up-with-the-Bible experience. It certainly did not appear for me back when I was a young evangelical encountering Bible-inspired doubt. I could only see Doors 1 and 2, and neither of them looked appealing. I had to beat my way to Door 3 through years of intellectual weeds — slowly, in my spare time, with fits and starts, reading the likes of the Jesus Seminar scholars and then John Piper and Darrell Bock and then James Kugel and, eventually, the Fortress Press version of N.T. Wright. I had to turn myself into a Bible nerd to find Door #3. But how many people who face these questions have time or inclination to do that?
Someone (I’d like to think it was an editor, because editors are The Best) had the notion to separate Enns’ chapters into small sections that read like mini-chapters. That design choice keeps the book moving at a good clip, which fits Enns’ style and is the culmination of his experience as a blogger for the religion website Patheos. His tone has touches of flippancy here and there, and he is not shy about using groaners, but that’s all in keeping with the bloggerific approach. And I think it works really well overall — a blend of scholarship, personal reflection, and short bursts of quippy writing.
I said the book was readable and relatable, and there’s one more r-word to describe The Bible Tells Me So: reverent. Surprisingly so. Enns’ book has come in for criticism from some reviewers who find that he plays fast and loose with the Bible, but egads, people — among books pitched to a wide audience, you are not going to find a more reverent non-fundamentalist reading of the Bible’s troubling features. Enns can be frank when describing the dark edges of God’s character and God-ordained acts of violence in the Bible. But he signals his deep love and respect for the Bible, too, calling on readers to “keep reading and wrestling with the Bible” and pledging that they’ll meet God in its pages.
All in all, Enns models a way for modern believers to see the Bible for what it is, warts and all, yet stay open to the possibility that it’s a book of ultimate and urgent truth, even Truth. The Bible Tells Me So is not a defense of scripture, and neither is it a takedown. It’s an invitation to let go of fear and give the Bible an honest reading. It’s about what it’s like to take Door #3, and a promise that if you walk through it, you won’t find yourself alone.