A new book has just come out that many of you will be very interested in. It is called A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford University Press), by Kristin Swenson. I did not know Kristin until I learned of the book, some months before it was published. The publisher asked if I would write an endorsement for the cover. I usually have to say no to this kind of request, but I read the book and thought it was terrific. Here is what I said in my blurb:
Do you think you know the Bible? Wait till you read Kristin Swenson’s new book. What if you don’t know the Bible at all? Even better. A Most Peculiar Book is a deeply informed, completely accessible, and endlessly fascinating explanation of what scholars know about the Bible and lay people, as a rule, do not. Read this book and prepare to learn!
I received my copy a couple of weeks ago and contacted Kristin to ask if she’d be interested in writing a couple of guest posts about it on the blog. She enthusiastically agreed, and here is her first one.
Kristin is in crunch time writing her next book and so will not be able to respond to questions and comments. But make them anyway! I’ll answer the ones I can (without having to reread the entire book!) and the ones I can’t will stand out there among many of life’s questions that simply have no answer….
Kristen Swenson is also the author of God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity and Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.
Hello you dear, intrepid readers of the The Bart Ehrman Blog. You are the best. I mean it. You are exactly the kind of people who “get” the effort of my fresh-off-the-press A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford). I’m so grateful to Dr. Ehrman for inviting me to meet you here, and also for saying nice things about it (and early enough) to go on the back cover. In A Most Peculiar Book, I get to go a bit deeper into what I skirted around with Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time, namely that the Bible’s a really weird book. This is not merely an observational fact. (You know that; you read this blog.) But it’s consequential. Lately, I’ve been thinking it may actually be the most consequential aspect of the Bible. (That’s for my next post.) Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction, subtitled “An Arranged Marriage.” Then, please come back. I’ll see you in another post!
I have a confession to make. But I’m worried that what you, an intelligent and discerning reader, will hear is not exactly what I mean. Then you’ll close this book and put it right back on the shelf. Yet what I want to tell you—and the fact that it feels like a confession— is what drives this entire project. So, here it is:
I love the Bible.
That statement gives me the willies. It’s something millions of Americans would nod right along with because it sounds so simple to understand. But my love for the Bible is not a tacit acceptance of everything in it as lessons or truths for immediate application. Not hardly. This is not a love for facile public display. It’s not of the swept-off-my-feet, love-at-first-sight variety, but rather more like the complicated love that might develop after decades in a marriage. An arranged marriage. I grew up with the Bible in an open-minded, garden-variety Protestant congregation. And I’ve come to love the Bible for all sorts of reasons, including some of the same reasons that can make it problematic and exasperating, even for reasons that make me disagree with it.
Look closely. Besides texts of lofty wisdom, inspiration, com- fort, and guidance, the Bible contains bewildering archaisms, inconsistencies, questionable ethics, and a herky-jerky narrative style. Yet those features barely get a passing glance these days. Some believers simply explain them away, while nonbelievers use them as a reason to dismiss the Bible entirely. This book looks squarely at what’s so weird, difficult, and disconcerting both about and in the Bible, and in the process shows how those qualities can actually en- rich one’s relationship, religious or not, to the text. I am not trying to convert anybody to anything except to learning. I’m committed to providing information, digging into the text and its background, and sharing questions of my own that might resonate with you. Those questions are both what make me love the Bible and what make that love so complicated.
For starters, the Bible is a cacophonous gathering of disparate voices. Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from a range of places, from the Dead Sea to Rome, Egypt to Antioch, from tiny towns and huge metropolises, rural hillsides and palace halls, prisons and podiums, and from a wider-still range of times—spanning as much as 1,500 years. The Bible covers subjects so vast that it begins with creation itself. The people responsible for putting down those words, the people responsible for passing them along, for collecting and canonizing what we have, and the people who have translated original ancient texts for modern readers come from and reflect a dizzying range of times and places, all of which influence the way we read what we now call the Bible.
And yet, despite all of that, this collection of texts is said to be “the word of God.” Think about that. The singular, one expression, of God. A person could spend a lifetime unpacking only that. Many have.
… It should come as no surprise, then, even if you have never read the Bible, to find that it is full of holes. From the very beginning, the story leaves us modern readers scratching our heads. For ex- ample, where did the supposedly first children—two boys—get their wives? The Bible doesn’t say. Those responsible for delivering the Bible that we have apparently didn’t always care about the kinds of things that we, who expect a story to proceed with a certain narrative logic, get hung up on.
… [T]he Bible invites—nay, demands—interaction, even argument. And I don’t simply mean argument about what the Bible says or means (though that’s inevitable) but argument with the text itself. For the qualities I have cited—its disparate voices and images of God, its fissures and cracks and the endless ways and things to learn about it—the Bible defies the simplistic treatment of so-called literalism. (I say “so-called” because what exactly does it mean to “read the Bible literally,” especially if what one is reading is itself a translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek?) The Bible’s diversity of perspectives and tone, not to say those texts in blatant disagreement with each other, actually models conversation, dialogue, and debate. It could issue no bolder invitation to engagement, no more compelling demand to bring the best of one’s faculties to bear on any interpretation of it.
Take the book in your hands as an opportunity to step out- side assumptions about dogma, traditional interpretations, and received opinion. Read it as if in conversation, and argue just as much as you like, as much as you can stand. Much of what we think about the Bible is actually received ideas and assumptions, passed along through other sources, themselves interpretations: holiday traditions, music and art, pop culture, children’s stories. You’ll be surprised how many things “the Bible says” don’t actually appear anywhere in the Bible. I want to return us to the text itself, in all its oddness—to show how strange is some of what’s familiar and to make the engagement inviting again.
Some of what you find here may be old hat; some of it might be new but easily digested; and some of it might make you a little (or more than a little) uncomfortable. I hope you’ll wrestle with that discomfort and in the process discover a richer way to think about the Good Book, maybe even about thinking itself. I hope that you’ll feel empowered to engage biblical texts with nuance and deepened appreciation, and also with the confidence to be not merely a blank slate on which it writes the old stuff but an agent in the conversation, to “gird up your loins” and be a partner with the text in the business of its meaning-making..