The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns. HarperOne, 2014. Paperback, 267 pages, $15.99.
Recent years have seen a sizeable number of spiritual autobiographies by evangelicals who have made the journey from fundamentalism to the kind of church communities usually described as “mainline” or “liberal.” For them, despite their gratitude for the gospel they had received as children, and their fondness for the church community that had nurtured them, it was no longer possible to maintain allegiance to the evangelical-fundamentalist subculture, with its fixed focus on personal salvation and the avoidance of personal sin; its adherence to certain key doctrinal and moral (and, increasingly, political) identity markers, especially the doctrine that the Bible is verbally inerrant; and its anxious fear and suspicion of secular learning, secular culture, and even of any doubt, questioning, or alternative interpretations of the Christian tradition itself.
American evangelical fundamentalism arose in the late 19th century as a reaction to modernity. One way to think of it is to say that it imposes a halt in the process of faith development at what James Fowler calls the “synthetic-conventional stage”—the stage when the individual, while capable of self-differentiation and abstract thought, continues to draw on a group and its authority figures as the arbiters of belief and behavior, and (consciously or unconsciously) suppresses doubt and questioning, both because they are explicitly frowned on by the group and because they represent a threat to the sense of security, identity, purpose and certainty that the group imparts.
A church culture founded on deeply sectarian absolutism and intolerant of doubt or dissent offers members only two choices at a moment of spiritual crisis: continue to grimly tamp down—or deny—all doubt and dissent … or acknowledge them, and leave the church.
The fundamentalist and other conservative evangelical churches have long maintained a network of church-related colleges in order to insulate their young adults from the predictable challenges to their faith that come from young adulthood, a widening of experience, and exposure to secular scholarship, particularly in the sciences and religious studies. Challenges may also arise from within—from the continued developmental maturation of young adulthood (Fowler’s “individuative-reflective faith”) which may prove both searching and relentless, especially in intelligent and thoughtful young people. This in turn often gives rise to intolerable cognitive dissonance and spiritual stress.
A church culture founded on deeply sectarian absolutism and intolerant of doubt or dissent offers members only two choices at such a moment of crisis: continue to grimly tamp down—or deny—all doubt and dissent whenever they crop up … or acknowledge them, and leave the church. Of those who leave, a considerable number no doubt remain alienated from any form of church life, perhaps also from any form of Christian faith, or any faith. A minority, presumably—among them such well-known witnesses as Rachel Held Evans, Morgan Guyton, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Peter Enns, author of The Bible Tells Me So—find their way to churches with a broader and more flexible understanding of Scripture and belief, a much higher tolerance of questioning and doubt, and an ethos of inclusiveness.
The autobiographies or memoirs recording these journeys are often fascinating, highly readable, and very useful to have around for sharing with newcomers to an Episcopal or otherwise “liberal” congregation, containing, as they do along the way, much reflection on faith, prayer, scripture, the meaning of sin and redemption, the problem of evil, and the vocation of the Church in contemporary culture. Enns, however, has chosen a somewhat different path. His personal faith story (which involved a small Christian college, a Calvinist seminary, then a doctorate in Old Testament from Harvard under the tutelage of Jewish scholars, and now a position on the faculty of Eastern College in Pennsylvania, and membership in an Episcopal congregation) provides the framework for a passionate and comprehensive handbook on the meaning and importance of scripture when it is released from the straitjacket of fundamentalist literalism. The resulting book is as good an introduction to an up-to-date but classically Anglican presentation of scripture for the lay reader as you’ll find anywhere.
The Bible Tells Me So is unconventionally structured, which is a large part of its appeal. It consists of seven chapters divided into brief sub-chapters that often end with provocative questions tempting the reader to keep reading. As already mentioned, it stands on the foundation of Enns’ own personal story, which he tells in the first chapter with disarmingly candid self-deprecation, and which consists of a sequence of turning points where Enns had to decide either to retreat into the carefully guarded and packaged inerrant Bible or risk the unknown. All of this is told in a breezy conversational style that manages (almost always) to avoid becoming forced or cute. Several times in this first chapter, he clearly lays out the dilemma of the young fundamentalist contemplating the Bible with increasing discomfort:
Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.
If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to “defend the Bible” against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved.
That is, until you actually read the Bible … on its own terms, [and] you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should. … [I]t’s a challenging book that leaves you with more questions than answers. …
[W]e have all heard of stories where people have become casualties for asking questions about scripture. So, you go it alone, doomed to a lifelong sound track of nagging doubt and stress, or you just leave your faith on the curbside with the rest of the week’s trash.
… Is a life of faith in God truly supposed to be this stressful? I don’t think so. So let’s stop … setting the Bible up to be something it’s not prepared to be and then anxiously smoothing over the rough parts to make it fit false expectations. … Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn’t support the spiritual journey. It cripples it. (pages 3-9)
Enns then tells his own story, leading up to the moment when a remark by one of his professors set up this very dilemma for him. “Three doors were standing before me,” he writes.
Door number one: I could ignore what I had just heard … , and go on with my life on spiritual and intellectual autopilot, keeping all those balls submerged somehow under water.
Door number two: I could take the door my tradition expected of me, which is to push back against what I just heard. I could become a “Bible defender,” swimming against the stream to protect at all costs the demands of a faith that needs a well-behaved Bible. …
Door number three: I could face what I just saw, accept the challenge, and start thinking differently about the Bible. … (page 19)
Enns directly tackles the most scandalous aspects of scripture, starting with the one most often cited by contemporary atheists—the cruelty and capriciousness, indeed the genocidal barbarity—of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Beginning with chapter two, Enns moves in and directly tackles the most scandalous aspects of scripture,starting with the one most often cited by contemporary atheists—the cruelty and capriciousness, indeed the genocidal barbarity—of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In working through this issue, he introduces basic historical-critical concepts such as the nature of national myth, the possibility of unreliable narrators, and the way the story is inextricably embedded in a warrior-heroic culture.
It’s not like the Israelites were debating whether or not to go ahead and describe God as a mighty warrior. They had no choice. That’s just how it was done—that was their cultural language. … The Bible looks the way it does because “God lets his children tell the story,” so to speak. …
Children see the world from their limited gaze. … [T]hink of how young boys in the schoolyard talk about their fathers. There are ways of “telling the story of your father” that get the point across, to make sure everyone knows you have the best dad around. (page 63)
Enns goes on to describe how as a child he consistently distorted the reality of his father’s life, partly out of ignorance of the adult world and partly in order to present his father in the best and most impressive light. “There was ‘historical truth’ in there, but you had to know where to look.” Meanwhile he knew, in some inarticulate way, “the many things my father did that were actually heroic but not quite as exciting for school-aged boys,” such as rushing home from a tiring, dirty job to attend his son’s Little League games, and doing carpentry work on their house. “[H]ad I talked like that, it would have ruined me. I might as well have just told them my dad played with dolls and wore a skirt.” (page 64)
Subsequent chapters delve deeper into the nature of stories, the way the scriptural story retells itself and revises itself over a long history, using and re-using such images as water, deliverance, and reversals (the younger son displacing the elder); how the Jesus of the Gospels follows in the rabbinical tradition of expounding scripture but does it in uniquely daring and challenging ways; how the Bible’s refusal to be pinned down or reduced to a “rulebook” is so utterly built into its essence that we have four distinct Gospels followed by the sometimes maddeningly obscure and contentious writings of Paul. Ultimately, he states (as Anglicans should know) that it is Christ, not the Bible, who truly is the Word of God. He also evokes his mentors, the rabbis—an important reminder for Christians that tussling with the Bible, debating it, living with the contradictions, is a far more ancient and reverent way of being with the Bible than any fearful fundamentalist protectiveness towards the text.
Ending the debate, getting to the right answer, is not the prime directive in the spiritual life. You can tussle with each other and with God … and it’s all good. … Enter the dialogue and you find God waiting for you, laughing with delight, ready to be a part of that back-and-forth. (page 243)
Tussling with the Bible, debating it, living with the contradictions, is a far more ancient and reverent way of being with the Bible than any fearful fundamentalist protectiveness towards the text.
It is not only fundamentalists who face the cognitive dissonance around scripture that Enns sketches out so vividly and around which he has built this book. Many adults in the more liberal churches, while knowing in principle that the Bible can survive many doubts about it, nevertheless have no idea where to begin moving their own relationship with scripture past the “synthetic-conventional” stage that they had reached by confirmation or youth group, and after which their spiritual development essentially was frozen in time, because they either stopped going to church entirely, or greatly cut back on their level of participation, and never studied religion in college or read an adult-level book on the subject.
It really matters little whether faith development is arrested at the synthetic-conventional stage because of the rigid and fearful demands of a fundamentalist subculture or because an individual, starting to feel the stress and cognitive dissonance of moving into the questioning stage of faith, chose to go through Enns’ Door number one or number two rather than embrace the struggle. Far too often, our liberal churches offer no help at all, no guidance or impetus at all, to help young adults turn instead to Door number three. And this stunting of spiritual growth goes on to replicate itself as these young adults become parents and often feel helpless to open scripture to their children or even to answer their questions.
Many adults in the more liberal churches, while knowing in principle that the Bible can survive many doubts about it, nevertheless often feel helpless to open scripture to their children or even to answer their questions.
“God Likes Stories” is the title of one of Enns’ chapters. Children like stories too. The best way for us to open the Bible for them to bring them to church where the story is embedded in ritual, and to tell, or read, the stories without anxiously hovering over them waiting for them to find the right moral or exhibit the right affect. Let the story, in all its strangeness, speak for itself.
© 2017 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.