A Book Review by Mark Beresford
(Enns, Peter. ‘How The Bible Actually Works’, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain. 2019.)
A few weeks ago a member of my congregation (Hi Kirsten!) lent me ‘How the Bible Actually Works’, by Dr Peter Enns. I was intrigued by the title and, having realised that this was a book Mark Gladman once referred to in an episode of our podcast, ‘Between 2 Sundays’, was intrigued.
Enns’ tagline (on the cover above) sums up the book quite brilliantly (a helpful thing for an author to do when you are reviewing their work!).
So, following it closely, Enns is seeking to articulate the nature of the Bible under three headings ‘Ancient’, ‘Ambiguous’, and ‘Diverse’. This is Enns’ attempt to recognise both what the Bible is, and, what the Bible is not. Essentially, he is pointing to the fact that the Bible is a very old collection of letters written across a changing cultural landscape that asks completely different questions to both our culture and each other’s (Ancient); that this is made up of stories, sayings, and wisdom gleaned in the furnace of people’s culturally bound search for God and meaning (Ambiguous), and; that it is ‘Diverse’, that is, that – obviously – it does not speak with one voice.
Perhaps the most significant, and repeated, insight to glean from this initial exploration of the nature of the Bible is what Enns concludes the Bible is not. With the Bible in hand, Enns believes we are not holding a book that is telling us what to believe and do in each and every situation. We are not looking at an ‘Owner’s Manual’ that neatly sets out every answer. The Bible, put beautifully by Enns, is not the work of a ‘Helicopter Parent’ who appears to haul us out of every uncomfortable scenario we find ourselves in. The Bible is not introducing us to such a God – or offering us the moral code of such a God. The Bible is not primarily giving ‘answers’ to our daily life questions. Only once we get this straight – what the Bible is not trying to do – we are free to ask what this ancient, ambiguous, and diverse document is trying to do.
Enn’s answer: that it is trying to invite us into a life of ‘wisdom’.
All that lack of clarity, cultural difference, and diverse moral, ethical, and religious advice is not only not going to lead us to religious conformity, it is also not intended to. Rather, for Enns, the Bible is seeking to invite us to be a thoughtful, humble, considerate, loving, spirit and Spirit-led people who are working, from our limited cultural perspectives, on immersing ourselves in the Jesus who ‘became for us wisdom from God’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). Yes, Jesus is our core – not religious practice or a new moral code.
All of this seems to me to be wonderfully consistent with a few of the themes that keep popping up in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Firstly, Jesus was famous as a ‘Rabbi’ who had a reputation for teaching, at least for the majority, through parables. These obscure stories inherently required sustained engagement to figure out their hidden meanings. Not only that, but their disarming simplicity has made them radically adaptable to the culture and experience of the individual or community in which they are being discussed.
Jesus taught for wisdom.
Second, Paul seems to go on a lot about the Mosaic Law as a guide, but not an end. He calls us to something bigger and beyond law. If this something is wisdom then it begins to explain Paul’s ability to give one instruction in one community and another in a different context. We are all familiar with attempts to flatten out Paul’s diverse instruction with the intention of making it more consistent. Take, for example, his teaching on the role of women in the early churches. To some he seems to impose a strict ‘silence’ while, at the end of Romans, he can acknowledge the apostleship of at least one female. This has caused many, in pursuit of conformity, to undertake hermeneutical backflips in pursuit of what Paul’s new, Christian, code actually was. Enns’ description of the Bible’s diversity sets us free to at least wonder if Paul has cultural, social, and pastoral reasons for addressing the freedom offered by the pursuit of wisdom in different ways, times, places, and cultures. We could ask the same of his stance on slavery, keeping the sabbath, obedience to empire, or any number of issues.
Significantly, I found myself considering the role of the Spirit as I read through Enns’ musings. Many have linked the Spirit to wisdom in creation, the opening part of Proverbs, and to Jesus’ teaching to fulfil the law. The New Testament seems to take the promise of the Spirit for all and initiate a full-scale embrace of the invitation to be led by this one. Here is something above and beyond legalism – and maybe even above and beyond clarity in all things. I also found myself more open to expecting diversity and even controversy within the community who are learning to follow this Spirit. Perhaps unity really is not the same as conformity and we do well to be a people who expect to be led differently in different situations and contexts. Our coming together as community then becomes opportunity for us to share experience leading to a more common wisdom. I experienced all this as a hopeful place to imagine the church addressing a topic such as the nature of marriage in our time. For Enns the Bible can be seen as a place that supports us in these new conversations as we ask what it looks like to operate out of grace and wisdom rather than pursue an agenda of the replication of a forced singular New Testament vision of community. This, to round out Enns’ tagline, I experienced as truly ‘Great News’.
Ultimately, I found Enns’ book to be wonderfully stimulating, imaginative, faithful, and thoroughly well researched, considered, and biblically supported. His flowing style made the book fantastically readable. Although he lightheartedly critiques his use of repetition, I found that it helped to often go over previous ground when making new links and discussing the implications of his musings. I loved the way this book set my imagination free – and wondered if this is exactly what reading the Bible is supposed to be like.
I highly recommend ‘How the Bible Actually works’!