Book Review: The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns

enns coversPeter Enns is an evangelical Christian and a Bible scholar—two identity markers that’ve raised a few conflicts for him. Which really is too bad, because he seems like a pretty faithful, intelligent, funny guy. At least, he seems like that based on this faithful, intelligent, and funny book he just wrote about the Bible. It’s called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

I think a lot of Mormons could really benefit from Enns’s experience. 

Enns has been around long enough to know that the Bible is not only a source of faith, but can just as easily become a challenge to faith. Many people who read the Bible carefully today are left feeling unsettled. The Bible contains strange accounts and contradictions—and not just in a few Old Testament laws but in the very picture of God it paints in various places. Enns tries to alleviate readerly anxiety by observing that the Bible actually contains several different pictures of God, which is understandable since elements of the Bible were written by different people at different times and places with different concerns and expectations.

Expectations, in fact, is what this book is really all about. “The problem,” Enns says, “is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear” (8), and he hammers on this point repeatedly. He wants people to stop expecting the Bible to be a straightforward history of God or a simple rule book about how to live your life in order to go to heaven. Instead, readers might understand it as a repository of stories from ancient people who wrestled to understand God, ancient people who thus serve as models for us in our own unsure and messy times.

Enns tells his own story of discovering unsettling Bible things that his conservative Christian background hadn’t prepared him for. These problems left him with a few options: Ignore the problems; deny the problems; or engage directly with them, risking changes to his faith and understanding. (What kind of problems? Like God commanding horrific genocides in the Old Testament, or like the Gospel authors contradicting each other or using Old Testament scripture out of context.) Out of three choices, Enns chose “door number three” (as he jokingly frames it; again, the overall tone of this book is humorous). He says “I gained a Bible—and a God—I was free to converse with, complain to, talk back to, interrogate, and disagree with, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust” (21).

So Enns wants the Bible to be interpreted for what it actually seems to be (a collection of ancient texts with a variety of perspectives about how God relates to us and how we might relate to God) rather than what people might hope it is (a uni-vocal, step-by-step rulebook that unerringly teaches particular facts about God). Why does Enns read the Bible this way? Because the Bible “tells him so,” to quote a popular Christian ditty. He turns Evangelical devotion to the Bible against those who allow their devotion to obscure basic understanding of the biblical text. You say you love the Bible? You can show that love by letting the Bible be itself.

Latter-day Saints have even more flexibility than many Evangelicals do when it comes to reinterpreting the Bible or viewing it as an imperfect but still divine text. But it seems like we as a community have yet to avail ourselves of some of the most interesting advances of biblical scholarship over the past century. Enns breezily (very breezily—he’s cracking jokes half the time, so if that’s not your thing you may need to skip this book and try something else. I’m not really a fan of ham-it-up style humor for the sake of quirkiness, but I did laugh out loud at a few of his cornier one-liners) introduces readers to a number of strange things about the Bible, but insists these strange things are not so much obstacles we should ignore or deny. They are actually invitations for us to dig deeper, to develop a more mature faith, and to give devotion to God beyond the Bible rather than restricting God to its pages, poorly interpreted.

The Bible Tells Me So is for non-academics. Enns puts footnotes and most scripture references and a timeline at the rear of the book, the print is large, and the tone is straight-forward, chatty, and humorous. (Enns blogged about the book here, by the way, if you want to get a feel for the book’s tone straight from him.) I think Mormons could really use this kind of basic introduction to some of the problems raised by biblical scholarship because (a) most of us are unfamiliar with the problems; (b) not many Mormons working academically in ancient scripture are trying to make the methods and discoveries of modern scholarship accessible and relevant to LDS views of the Bible; and (c) too many of us don’t see that scholarship can actually alleviate some of the tensions caused by reading scriptures written hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

It can be invigorating to discover that, for all the things we know about God, there is still so much more—further light and knowledge—to learn. As Enns puts it:

A well-behaved Bible is one that rises above the messy and inconvenient ups and downs of life. A Bible like that is an alien among its surroundings, a brittle scroll kept under glass, safe and sound from the rough handling of the outside world…If we let the Bible be the Bible, on its own terms—on God’s terms—we will see this in-fleshing God at work, not despite the challenges, the unevenness, and ancient strangeness of the bible, but precisely because of these things. Perhaps not the way we would have written our sacred book, if we had been consulted, but the one that the good and wise God has allowed his people to have. If we come to the Bible and read it this way, in true humility, rather than defending our version of it, we will find God as he wants to be found. The Bible tells us so” (244).

Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (San Francisco: HarperOne, September 2014), pp. 267.

Comments

  1. With all the General Conference coverage I thought it’d also be nice to have something a little bit different.

  2. “You say you love the Bible? You can show that love by letting the Bible be itself.”

    Wonderful. But I think that’s a deceptively simple phrase that still permits–requires–additional interpretation.

  3. I’m not sure that the humor would work for me, but this does sound like a refreshing book. Echoing Steve’s comment, I think we’re pretty afraid to let the Bible be itself–especially the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). We’re terrified of Isaiah, especially, so we skip to the bits that vaguely seem to evoke Jesus and call it good. We talk about multiple levels of fulfillment as a way of skipping over the primary one on the surface of the text as thought it doesn’t matter. I welcome any invitation to slow down, read more carefully, and take the time to work out the basic meaning of the text. As I’ve tried to do this, I’ve found the Hebrew Scriptures to contain some of the richest, most interesting, and most spiritually powerful writings I’ve yet encountered–and I believe that everybody can have a similar experience, given time and patient reading. I’m glad for a book that tries to democratize this sort of experience.

  4. Sounds like a fun read. I found out this weekend through conversation with some friends that some members think that except for the scraps covered in the Sunday School curriculum, the Old Testament is largely useless and full of error. If the Bible is the word of God only if translated correctly, a lot of people seem to conclude that it’s not worth cracking the cover when there are more correct books to be had. The LDS view of scripture does permit a greater degree of flexibility than many Christian views, but it also permits a fantastic nonchalance. I think it’s a shame. Like Enns, reading the Bible through a different lens has been exciting and transformative for me.

  5. Steve: Absolutely. “Letting the Bible be itself” is still a problematic way to frame it. All interpretation involves choice, exclusion, framing, etc. The attempt to “let the Bible be itself” is never fully possible, because books exist somewhere between the page and the person. I probably could have communicated that better in the review, but people should also be aware that Enns’s popular style sometimes smuggles in oversimplifications.

  6. Well put, Friend: “The LDS view of scripture does permit a greater degree of flexibility than many Christian views, but it also permits a fantastic nonchalance.”

  7. Blair, that’s right — and more pointedly, “letting the Bible be itself” sounds like more obfuscation around the point that we’re still gonna do whatever we want with the text. Lector vincit omnia.

  8. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

  9. Excellent review, Blair — this sounds like a great book. (And, it seems to comport very well with Walter Brueggemann’s more scholarly writings on Old Testament theology, which I’ve really been enjoying.)

  10. Glad to see someone else promoting Enns, since I’ve been flogging his material for a few years. As far as Evangelical OT scholars go, I think he’s one of my favorites.

    For Enns, “letting the Bible be itself” means reading it closely and discarding Evangelical traditions where they conflict, such as inerrancy. (Or at least, many Evangelicals understand Enns to redefine inerrancy so far as to be a de facto rejection, which is why he’s a controversial figure in that crowd.) Many of his other books are also written for laypeople, but not as casual/humorous as I understand this one to be.

    His The Bible and the Believer: how to Read they Bible Critically and Religiously is a joint effort with a Catholic (Daniel Harrington)and a Jew (Marc Tvi Brettler, another author I like). The audio from the conference that gave rise to the book used to be available. Dave Banack gave it a multi-part review/reading at Worlds Without End .

    I’ve had Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament on my shortlist of recommended OT books for Mormons for a while.

    I think his The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins is also well worth reading.

  11. Thanks for the review. I do agree that the idea of “letting the Bible be itself” is a bit simplistic. With our society so far removed from the culture of the Bible, it’s difficult for most of us to understand what the Bible was intended to be. For laypeople like me who actually attempt to understand the context and development from scholarly sources, we’re flooded with conflicting messages about source materials and genre type, composition dates, questionable authorship and historicity. I definitely understand why a lot of Mormons would just bag it and opt to focus on the more coherent and internally consistent Book of Mormon. I laughed at the mention of the NT authors using OT quotes out of context. It definitely seems like NT writers weren’t particularly interested in letting their own Bible be itself.

  12. Mary Ann, Enns has some interesting things to say about NT usage of Hebrew scriptures in this book, and also in The Bible and The Believer.

    Also of note: Enns will be appearing on a forthcoming episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, as will Marc Brettler. Go forth and listen to the Maxwell Institute Podcast!

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/tag/podcast/

  13. “I laughed at the mention of the NT authors using OT quotes out of context.” This is also a major thrust of Inspiration and Incarnation.

  14. Thanks for this Blair, I look forward to the podcast.

    In relation to his blog which you linked to – I thought the second half (after the word list) was great. Does anyone think there could be any utility in substituting “the Church” whenever he says “the Bible” in that second half?

  15. I really like Enns. I am looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for the review.

  16. Blair and Ben – thanks for the related suggestions. I’ll look into them.

  17. Well done and nice writing!!

  18. It strikes me (again, it appears ) that Enns repeated short and book-length calls to reexamine the role of the Bible vs. the cultural tradition that has grown up around it (and the associated problems ) really parallels our own struggle with Prophets. It’s just a case of substituting one quasi-infallible-but-actually-quite-human Authority for another.

  19. Ben S., I get the feeling you like Enns, then?

    ;) :O

  20. Wait, you do book reviews on BCC now? Want an ARC of mine to review? http://www.amazon.com/Saved-Saint-Hellen-Riebold-ebook/dp/B009VIEW6A/

  21. Er, Anna, I hate to break it to you but this is probably book review no. 428 here at BCC.

  22. Hey I just ran a quick count of books I’ve reviewed here and came up with the magical number of 44.