I regularly listen to Pete Enns and Jared Byas’ podcast The Bible for Normal People. The two hosts have carved out a helpful niche focusing on why Christians need to put off their overly mystical lenses when approaching the Bible. They acknowledge the difficulties that many Christians encounter when reading they Bible, and they do their best to respect the reservations many people have with the Scriptures.
One may say that Pete Enns’ book How the Bible Actually Works: How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News is more or less a transcript of the entire podcast. In this book, Enns acknowledges that many people, Christians included, often find the Bible difficult to apply in their lives because it is “ancient, ambiguous, and diverse”.
Enns writes: “The spiritual disconnection many feel today stems precisely from expecting (or being told to expect) the Bible to be holy, perfect, and clear, when in fact after reading it they find it to be morally suspect, out of touch, confusing, and just plain weird.”
The author does not seek to defend the Bible against these apparent accusations. In fact, Enns himself finds and describes the Bible in the same manner. He acknowledges that it is an ancient book depicting an ancient and unfamiliar culture.
He also describes the Bible as ambiguous, with many Christians finding themselves unsure about what to do with some of its commands; and he also finds it diverse, meaning that there are apparent and “actual” contradictions between different parts of the Bible. Enns believes that the ambiguity and contradictions are not reasons to invalidate the Bible, they are a cue for us to take a different approach to how we read the book.
Enns believes that the way of Wisdom was always followed by the people who wrote and read the Bible in ancient times. He uses several “contradictions” in the Bible to show how wisdom dictated different commands for different situations, even making room for commands that contradict one another (e.g. Proverbs 26:4 & 5).
According to Enns, all this ambiguity and diversity should discourage us from the reading the Bible as a rule book set in stone; and we should be willing to adapt and sometimes abandon passages that no longer serve the purposes of Wisdom.
“The Bible becomes a confusing mess when we expect it to function as a rule book for faith. But when we allow the Bible to determine our expectations, we see that Wisdom, not answers, is the Bible’s true subject matter,” he writes.
I agree with the author’s exhortation to Christians that they should apply Wisdom when reading the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is not a mere rule-book. Neither is it an instruction manual. The Bible is an ancient book and I personally find some of its commands ambiguous, confusing and even contradictory. The Bible may be a light to our path, but it is useless to us if we read it with our eyes closed. We should indeed apply Wisdom when reading the Scripture.
The main thing I struggled with while reading this book is Enns’ definition of this “Wisdom” that we are to apply when reading the Bible. The closest he comes to explaining this “Wisdom” is when he says we are not only to read the Bible, but also to read the culture, read the present moment and then discern how best to adopt, adapt or abandon a given Biblical passage.
The problem I find with this approach is that it is no different from any reasonable approach to any other work of literature.
When I read a book such as The Chronicles of Narnia, common wisdom (and just general reasonability) tells me that lions can’t speak and there are no magical mirrors at the back of wardrobes. Common wisdom tells me that it is bad to judge people by their race or size; it is better to share; and it is sometimes good to give others the benefit of the doubt. These are aspects of wisdom that life and experience teaches all of us — though we are not always attentive students.
So what, then, is the point of the Bible if what is written there is no more trustworthy or authoritative than the limits of my own judgment and Wise reading? And what does the Bible even mean when it distinguishes the “Wisdom of God” from the “wisdom of man” (James 3:13-18)?
When I say that Biblical passages about slavery are no longer applicable today because society has evolved and we now understand that it is wrong to own another human being, isn’t that just the common wisdom of the age? Am I not just aligning with the times? What role has the Bible played in showing me how to think about slavery if the only lesson is that the Biblical writers were slightly more progressive than the surrounding cultures?
After all, there were many other ancient thinkers who didn’t ascribe to the Judeo-Christian teachings and yet proved to be more progressive than their surrounding cultures.
While I appreciate the author’s effort in bringing the Scriptures down to earth and encouraging a more thoughtful and authentic approach to the Bible, I feel he has done little to make a case for why I should give the Bible any more attention than other works of literature. The author has brought the Bible down to earth and left it there.
If “how the Bible actually works” is how any reasonable person would work in any given situation, then what is the point of ascribing to Scripture? If the Bible is no more than a case study on how to apply the wisdom that we already possess, why should anyone opt to be a Christian instead of simply being a humanist?
By reading this book, I found myself less confident in the faith I have in Christianity, even as my approach to the Bible became more enlightened. I am not sure whether this is ultimately a good or bad thing for someone who confesses to be a Christian and strives to be faithful to the God revealed in the Bible. Wisdom leads me to believe that it is not.