In his typical confrontational style, atheistic evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once said, “Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?”
While Dawkins is not one to whom evangelicals are inclined to listen, in this instance he might have a valid point. Why does it seem like the people who appeal to the Bible most often are the same people who are unaware of its many difficult, confusing, even troubling passages? Have they really read it?
Of course, Dawkins is concerned about more than Bible literacy (though evangelicals need help there, too). Rather, his concern is that most Christians haven’t really faced the difficult passages of the Bible, wrestling with the complex questions they raise.
A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible
In A Most Peculiar Book, Kristin Swenson addresses the dirty little secret of biblical studies — that the Bible is a weird book. It is full of surprises and contradictions, unexplained impossibilities, intriguing supernatural creatures, and heroes doing horrible deeds. It does not provide a simple worldview: what “the Bible says” on a given topic is multifaceted, sometimes even contradictory. Yet, Swenson argues, we have a tendency to reduce the complexities of the Bible to aphorisms, bumper stickers, and slogans. Swenson helps readers look at the text with fresh eyes. A collection of ancient stories and poetry written by multiple authors, held together by the tenuous string of tradition, the Bible often undermines our modern assumptions, and is all the more marvelous and powerful for it.
The Bible Is Weird
The same concern is at the forefront of an intriguing new book by Kristin Swenson, A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible. Her thesis is that the Bible is weird—much weirder than we tend to realize—and that such peculiarity needs to be faced rather that dismissed or ducked. The oddity of the Bible is part of its charm, and if we don’t reckon with it then we are not taking the Bible seriously. She writes:
Besides texts of lofty wisdom, inspiration, comfort and guidance, the Bible contains bewildering archaisms, inconsistencies, questionable ethics, and 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 . . . and in the process shows how those qualities can actually enrich one’s relationship, religious or not, to the text. (xiv)
After laying out this thesis, Swenson—associate professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia—walks through the various ways the Bible is peculiar. She begins with the oddity of its origins—that it was written by many different authors (many of them anonymous), across a long time, from a diversity of cultures, in several unfamiliar languages, all of which has been copied (and changed) countless times.
From there, Swenson highlights the unusual ways God is described—how his name is actually in the plural, and how different names for God are used in the early chapters of Genesis. She also catalogs the strange descriptions of Satan—how he manifests as a serpent, is called by different names, and how his demons mate with women (Swenson’s interpretation of Gen. 6:4).
Swenson covers the serious immoral behavior of key biblical leaders (Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Moses, David, Jonah, Peter), hard-to-believe events or miracles (long lives of prediluvian humans, the Egyptian plagues, the sun standing still in Joshua), and difficult (and, for Swenson, inconsistent) teachings about marriage, sex, and homosexuality. An entire chapter is devoted to contradictions and inconsistencies (two creation accounts in Gen. 1–2, animal count on the ark, the census of David, the birth of Jesus, the death of Judas). And, of course, no survey of the Bible’s problems would be complete without a chapter on how “immoral” the Bible is—it advocates genocide, promotes slavery, and condones the killing of both children (2 Kings 2:23–25) and girls/concubines (Judg. 19:24–25).
So, what do we make of A Most Peculiar Book? I think Swenson’s overall thesis is one evangelicals need to hear. It’s not enough to simply quote a selected Bible verse here and there, as it suits our needs. We must come to grips with the entirety of the Bible, even the difficult portions.
It’s not enough to simply quote a selected Bible verse here and there, as it suits our needs. We must come to grips with the entirety of the Bible, even the difficult portions.
While an overly sanitized view of the Bible might seem like spiritual health—why upset people with issues they don’t need to know about?—it can become a problem later when a Christian is exposed to unknown facts about the Bible. And when that happens, troubled Christians will often think, Why didn’t my pastor ever tell me about that?
Beyond the overall thesis, however, I think Swenson’s volume runs into a number of problems.
Assuming the Worst
I’m all for an honest look at the Bible’s challenges, without ducking the hard parts. But there’s a difference between honestly facing the Bible’s difficulties and assuming that all such difficulties are intractable and unsolvable. Swenson does an admirable job pointing out the challenges, but spends very little effort offering any solutions to those challenges (even when such solutions are well-known among modern scholars). Indeed, she repeatedly seems to take the academic position that is most critical of the Bible, even though other credible options are possible.
To put it directly, if one wants to be honest about the possible challenges, one also needs to be honest about possible solutions.
I’ll mention one example. When discussing the “biblical oddities as they pertain to the divinity of Jesus” (48), Swenson is quite keen to take the hard-line view that Jesus never claimed to be God in the Gospels (even hedging on whether John really equates Jesus with God). While conceding that Paul thought Jesus was God, she hedges there too, arguing that “there was room to think about the divine and human on a kind of continuum” (50).
But Swenson’s christological analysis, especially the idea of this continuum within first-century Judaism, has been seriously challenged—indeed, some would say roundly refuted—by the works of Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and others. Sure, Swenson isn’t required to agree with these scholars, but they are certainly not on the fringe of the academic discussions of early Christology. Acknowledging the other side would’ve made for a more balanced approach to the “problems” of the Bible.
Letting the Bible Be the Bible?
The essence of Swenson’s argument is that Christians need to let the Bible be the Bible, even when it presents hard, difficult, or offensive content. We need to be willing to acknowledge “texts that make us uncomfortable or that we simply don’t like” (231). Fair enough.
But throughout the volume the reader begins to wonder whether Swenson follows her own advice. This question becomes particularly acute in the portions of the book that address sexuality. Swenson argues that the Bible doesn’t really prohibit extramarital sex because, after all, Abraham slept with Hagar, and Judah slept with Tamar (135). In addition, the Bible doesn’t really prohibit same-sex marriage because Genesis 1 and 2 never use the word “marriage.” Yes, Jesus referred to the union of Adam and Eve as marriage, but that doesn’t hold a lot of weight because “Jesus didn’t seem particularly crazy about marriage” (133).
One doesn’t need to be a biblical scholar to recognize that these are not the strongest arguments—especially in light of the enormous biblical data in the other direction. Swenson seems to desperately want the Bible to not teach that marriage is between one man and one woman—and, in my opinion, uses some rather shaky reasoning. The reader could have the distinct impression that Swenson is not really letting the Bible be the Bible.
If she were following the tenor of her book, wouldn’t it have been better to admit the Bible teaches the traditional view of marriage, even if she finds it difficult or offensive? Isn’t the whole point that we should let the Bible say hard things, even if we disagree?
It seems that evangelicals may not be the only ones trying to make the Bible say what they want it to say.
Moral High Ground
In a book dedicated to the Bible’s problems, one might wonder what the end game is. Does Swenson have an overall purpose for why she’s pointing out these oddities? Throughout the volume it becomes clear that, for her, a problematic Bible means we cannot draw clear moral applications from it, nor should we. Swenson writes, “The Bible’s oddities and surprises undermine modern readers’ efforts to extrapolate for absolutist claims immediately applying to their own (or other persons’) lives” (197). She warns against any study Bible with footnotes that “tell you what to believe . . . [or] tell you how to live” (220).
It seems that evangelicals may not be the only ones trying to make the Bible say what they want it to say.
In other words, the Bible is not a reliable guide for beliefs or morality.
This does not mean, however, Swenson does not believe in moral absolutes. Indeed, it is clear throughout the volume that she has a strong moral compass. She devotes an entire chapter, in fact, to the “immorality” of the Bible, since it condones slavery, genocide, and a variety of other moral evils. She even exhorts the reader to reject any biblical texts that “promote intolerance, cruelty, or inequity” (228).
This presents a bit of a philosophical conundrum. The reader might begin to wonder where Swenson finds these moral norms she invokes so assuredly. How does she know intolerance and inequity—not to mention genocide and slavery—are morally wrong? To what ultimate standard does she appeal? After all, not just any worldview can provide the foundation for such moral claims.
Of course, she has already made it clear that the Bible (or the biblical worldview) is unable to provide a foundation for morality. The Bible is too much of a mess for that.
So we are faced with a rather odd scenario. We have an author who is convinced she understands morality with enough certainty to condemn the Bible as immoral, yet offers no basis for her own moral claims.
Now, I suppose Swenson could back off this and say she’s not really making absolute moral claims. Maybe she’s not saying that genocide and slavery are really wrong—she’s merely saying she doesn’t prefer them. But then her argument against the Bible falters too. It’s not enough to say she doesn’t like what’s in the Bible. For her argument against the Bible to work, these things must be objectively wrong, regardless of what she (or anyone else) thinks about them.
Here’s the point: After warning the reader that you can’t trust the Bible as a moral guide, Swenson seems to trust herself as a moral guide. Instead of the Bible as the authority, humans are now the authority. I suppose the reader can decide which authority is better.
Facing Criticism, Avoiding Hypercriticism
In the end, I think Swenson has written an interesting, intriguing, and worthwhile volume on how the Bible can sometimes be a complex and difficult book. And evangelicals need to take note. We need to face the hard parts of the Bible head-on, with honesty and integrity.
After warning the reader that you can’t trust the Bible as moral guide, Swenson seems to trust herself as a moral guide.
But Swenson’s volume, perhaps unintentionally, also highlights the problems with some modern hypercritical approaches to the Bible. Some critical scholars are so intent on finding and highlighting the problems that they overlook plausible solutions, presenting the Bible in the worst possible light. Moreover, it turns out that is not just evangelicals who are tempted to make the Bible say what they want it to say. Indeed, it seems like critical scholars often do the same thing.
Yes, it is true the Bible can sometimes be a confusing, difficult book to read. But on one level that may not be surprising. As Paul said when pondering the mysteries of God, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom. 11:33).