Book review of Peter Enns’s The Bible Tells Me So
WRITTEN BY ELIZABETH EMERY, AAI NEWS TEAM
When I picked up Peter Enns’s new book, The Bible Tells Me So, it was primarily because I was enticed by the subtitle Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Anyone who has left Christianity because of (or is still Christian and wrestles strongly with) doctrinal inconsistencies and ethical conundrums in religious texts may be curious (like me) to know how Christians who love the Bible manage to deal with these issues.
Enns begins his book with a disclaimer: the Bible, as a literal work, is “like a knock-off Chanel handbag—fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.” He admits that from its very genesis (sorry), the Good Book is chockfull of the fairy-tale-like adventures and mythical achievements of God’s people. This is tough, Enns says, because a literal reading of the Bible (and if you don’t read it literally, why are you really reading the Bible?) leads us to believe that the God of the Christians is an ambivalent, brutally merciless, jealous individual who condones genocide and infanticide and every other –cide there is. “Strictly speaking,” writes Enns, “The American with Disability Act is unbiblical,” because the disfigured are barred from the priesthood. It’s bothersome to say the least.
So what do we do with the Bible, presupposing it’s directly from God? According to Enns we must first recognize that the problem isn’t the Bible itself but it’s with our expectations of the Bible, and our desperate attempts to make it something it is not; making it, as Enns says, “behave.” Enns wants us to accept it as the “messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have.” He asserts that we must start thinking about the Bible by trusting God rather than ourselves, and cease imposing our own wills upon it, having faith that it is the way it is for a reason!
Enns spends the first section of his book tackling a heavy subject that has given the spins to lay Christians and biblical scholars alike: the genocide of the Canaanites by the Israelites. Enns admits that it’s difficult to reconcile the notion of a caring, loving Heavenly Father with an angry, jealous dictator who wipes out all of humanity with a flood, kills the unlucky Egyptian first-born children, and tells His people to mercilessly murder every man, woman, and child of Canaanite descent simply for being there. (In theory it was for being wicked, too, although it’s hard to imagine little babies sinning in any way besides repeatedly waking up their parents in the night). When confronted with such a significant question as this, Enns begins his trend (carried throughout the book) of avoiding a very possibly ugly answer—by just plain making shit up. For example, Enns’s tactic of letting God off the hook for the Israelite violence against the Canaanites is this: “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites... That’s really what this comes down to. Canaanite genocide is part of Israel’s story of the past—not a historical account of something God did.” Those silly little Israelites’ interpretation of God’s will had simply fallen victim to the tribal warfare culture of the time, and because that’s just the way things were, God went along with it and so they assumed He endorsed it. And, oops, we’ve all been interpreting this wrong the entire time.
Another significant issue is Enns’s willingness to cherry-pick parts of the Bible that are subject to interpretational pliability. If, as it turns out, the Israelites just grossly misinterpreted God’s will, couldn’t the same be said of any other part of the Bible? Perhaps the Ten Commandments are just a product of Moses’s PTSD, something he thought was necessary because of societal trends at the time, but actually isn’t really all that important today (I’d be okay with that, especially if it meant we could use Louis C.K.’s version instead). In all seriousness, this is a huge question that Enns glosses over without considering that the trail he blazes sets a poor example for less kind-hearted Christians than he. It’s this very same personalized malleability that allows evangelical Christians to liberally interpret the one obscure verse that allows total condemnation of gay men (Leviticus 20:13), but ignore the slightly more ‘Christlike’ edict of “Love thy neighbor” (Matthew 19:19). Historic Christianity would have us believe we are made in God’s image but it seems as though we are making God in ours. Enns’s book is an example par excellence.
So only fifty pages into The Bible Tells Me So, I found myself struggling to continue. On top of his blasphemous re-twisting of Biblical history, the tasteless writing style Enns uses in an attempt to make light of some very serious conundrums is nothing less than obnoxious. There is really only so much har-har humor one can take in any book, much less one where we’re discussing whether or not God “rolls” a certain way about manslaughter or the virgin birth. Enns gives his readers an overabundance of trite silliness, melodramatic ellipses and italics, and several poorly disguised Warning! Warning! This may be difficult for you to wrap your head around. Considering that the majority of his readers are probably well versed in the verses, Enns would probably have better served his cause by not constantly presuming that he’s about to blow all of our minds. Maybe I’m just a Grinch.
Also, beyond Enns’s hackneyed goofs, one could argue against even attempting to make the violence and inconsistencies in the Bible compatible with the advent of a modern-day “God is Love.” Why bother? When women worldwide are still systemically oppressed by religion, when radical believers still kill in the name of God, when in America the religious right is still responsible for the inexcusable lack of civil liberties for many minorities, why in the world would we even try to justify the Bible? Why do we endorse attempting to make an ancient, historically inaccurate, self-contradicting book a moral guide for our behavior today?
A lot of it has to do with power and money. As long as Christianity has been a thing, its proponents have been known for touting their own personal versions of God’s will as absolute reality, and entire populations have been wiped out as the result of groups of believers rearranging the ‘truth’ to their liking. And in a day where information about everything is so broadly available, this DIY approach to “Biblical Christianity” rings hollow. We’ve seen Christian apologists before—over and over!—and their efforts always yield the same result: Nice for you, but what about the rest of us? It comes off as doubtful at best but exhausting and dishonest at worst, which is why I imagine Enns’s most vocal critics are conservative Biblical Christians. Don’t like the truth? Rearrange it to your own liking! – It’s easy, sure. But it certainly isn’t revolutionary in the way Enns seems to think it is.
It would be refreshing to read that, okay, the Bible has these weird parts that we really can’t understand in the context of modern-day humanity, but aren’t there a lot of texts from which we leave out the bad and harvest the good for our enlightenment? Sure there are. And since we obviously can’t ignore the Bible, that approach might reflect a more realistic, more humble approach than Enns’s ending edict of, “The Bible, just as it is, still works. Don’t try to explain it. Just accept it.” (And yes, that’s verbatim.) In short, it is tiresome, fruitless and makes no sense to try to justify the patently un-‘Godlike’ parts of the Bible as simple misinterpretations on the part of the biblical author that we could get past if only we opened our puny minds to God’s will.