PERMISSION GRANTED--Take the Bible into Your Own Hands. By Jennifer Grace Bird. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Xvi + 189 pages.
The Bible is a sacred book holy to Jews (the First Testament), Christians (both first and second testaments), and even Muslims (though read in tandem with the more authoritative Qur’an). While it is sacred literature it is also a very human book. Although the Bible is a runaway best seller, it is clear that even church people either don’t read it or find it difficult to understand. Being that it is ancient literature many find it difficult to navigate. When they do take a tour of it, many find parts of the Bible rather off-putting. What do we make of divine calls for ethnic cleansing (Joshua) or speak of women in terms of being property of fathers or husbands? Of course some take these kinds of texts and try to apply them to our current day, making the Bible a rather dangerous book to read.
As a pastor who believes that the Bible can be the source of a word from God—I appreciate Karl Barth’s concept of a three-fold word of God, with the Bible becoming a divine word as it points beyond itself to the Word of God incarnate (The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age: Some Help from Karl Barth)—I am always on the lookout for resources that can help overcome our biblical illiteracy as well as help us navigate the often strange world of the Bible. In Permission Granted, Jennifer Grace Bird, a biblical scholar, teacher, and speaker who is currently living in Portland, Oregon, invites us to “take the Bible into [our] own hands.” That is, as the subtitle suggests, it’s okay to read the Bible critically, asking questions about whether or not this ancient book has a word for today. She does this by pointing out those areas of deepest concern to contemporary readers. It serves to remind us that the Bible is a complicated book. Bird wants us to understand that not everything that resides between its covers comes from God or is a fount of inerrant information about God. When read with care it can point us to God, but there is much in the Bible, if read literally and flatly, making no distinction between what might be from God and what might not, can prove harmful.
The book starts out with a brief overview of what we know about the Bible – things like the definition of scripture and discussions of genres and authorship. With this very basic foundation laid, Bird moves into the heart of the book—addressing the questions that most often arise with regard to the biblical text. This is a very personal book, reflecting, at least it seems to me, the challenges of moving away from a very literalistic reading of the Bible as a divine book, about which no questions should be asked—to quote the old hymn, just “trust and obey”—to a need to ask questions. Throughout the book she speaks of the near shock that she experienced when she allowed herself to ask questions. Like many who emerge out of a conservative Christian background, being confronted by the humanness of Scripture can prove disconcerting. For some this completely undermines one’s faith. It seems that the author has emerged with faith intact, but the nature of that faith has changed dramatically.
Having recently finished Harvey Cox's How to Read the Bible (my review of Cox's book will appear in the Christian Century), which offers an equally liberal slant on reading the Bible as Bird's; it was interesting to compare the tone of the two books. Bird is witty and even snarky, whereas Cox is more demure and affable. Both offer a vision of the Bible as a fully human text that presents significant problems for the reader to deal with. Part of this is generational, but Bird sets out to be more provocative than does Cox. While Cox doesn't shy away from pointing out difficulties presented by the text, he is more interested in making the case for a spiritual reading methodology that moves beyond historical critical questions that Bird seems interested in addressing. That being said, I expect that Cox and Bird are writing to different audiences, though I believe both want to help those who might be wary of reading the Bible to reengage with the text and its message. Both warn the reader to be careful and always consider context.
Permission Granted is not a comprehensive guide to reading the Bible. It doesn’t cover every element of the story, but rather picks out the issues that most often bedevil readers, especially readers who live outside the typical Christian community. The inclusion of discussion questions at the end of each chapter, however, makes it a useful tool for church study groups. My sense is that this book might be best read in a group, at least when it comes to church people, who might find the book too challenging to one’s faith professions.
The book begins in earnest with a discussion of the two creation stories, discussing the concept of myth (a concept often misunderstood when applied to the Bible). From the creation stories she moves to the Garden and the role it has played in our understandings of sin and of human relationships. Then things get intriguing with conversations about sex (it’s found throughout the Bible even though we seem reticent to talk about it in church). She delves into questions of why we often look at sex as something dirty, discussions of its purpose (procreation or pleasure), and even rape. The chapter on sex is followed by violence, and since the two are often intertwined in our society (see movies and TV), this is appropriate. Not only do we discover a plethora of stories of violence, we find that God is often portrayed condoning it. We have, she says, permission to ask questions about whether all this violence is divinely approved (even if the Bible suggests that it is). She writes that “if we can be numb to the actual harm of any of the violence around us, today, then we will similarly miss the possible implications of it as portrayed in scripture” (p. 73). This is followed by a somewhat broadly constructed chapter that looks at certain stories have been edited and even sugarcoated, so that we miss the dark side of the story. Think, for instance of the Exodus. Yes, the Hebrew people are liberated, but at what cost to the Egyptians? Or, we might want to ask questions about how we conflate stories, such as stories about Mary Magdalene are merged with other stories, so that Mary becomes this sinful woman who likely was a prostitute whom Jesus seems to have embraced (we run into other characters as well, such as Samson, David, Job, and Jonah). As a feminist scholar it will not surprise that Bird examines the way in which women are portrayed in the Bible. She is most concerned with texts in both Testaments that speak of women as property and calls for submission to male authority. That said, she notes that Paul is actually fairly progressive and that the more severe views come later in letters that are disputed (Ephesians and 1 Timothy). She also takes up the issue of Mary's status as virgin and what that means for women (is virginity the preferred state for women). She takes up the various portraits of Jesus, addressing concerns presented by the sometimes conflicting pictures. There is also a discussion of Paul, asking whether or not he was the first Christian. She's of the opinion that Paul was and remained a Jew and that never was a Christian, a word that she believes emerges after Paul was already dead. What is important is to remember that Paul was Jewish, even as he took the message of Jesus to Gentile worlds. Finally, there's a chapter on judgment and apocalyptic literature, in which she asks the question of the purpose of such literature (it can be encouraging, but it also tends to highlight divine violence). One of her chief concerns here is the danger of using the threat of hell and judgment as encouragement to salvation. Besides maybe apocalyptic literature is wrong about whether the world’s problems are too difficult for us to address. Maybe we can work together on solving our problems.
If you have some background in biblical studies (as most preachers should), there really isn’t much that is new here. This is not written for scholars, but for those who are asking questions and need permission to pursue answers. She writes, she says, with the purpose of making what she has learned from biblical scholarship accessible to the general reader (non-scholar and probably non-clergy, though some of this might come as a shock to some clergy). In other words, I’m not her intended audience. It is true that some will find what she has to say to be not only new, but upsetting. As I read it, I tried to keep in mind the intended audience, and my only real concern (besides the sometimes negative tone that at times I found off-putting, but I’m chalking that up to my increasing age), is that the book focuses on the negative, with not as much attention to the positive as I might like. Now I understand why the emphasis is placed where it is, but something of the beauty and the theological majesty that is also present would be valuable. It’s there in places, but it’s not what stands out. Of course, this isn’t the final book to be read on the subject (this is true of Cox's book as well). It could possibly be read in tandem with another book, such as perhaps Bernard Anderson’s The Unfolding Drama of the Bible, that offers a more affirmative overview of the same text.
Yes, the Bible is a dangerous book, but it is also an inspirational book. Learning how to read it with discernment and with spiritual intent, while also asking questions and even disagreeing with parts of this anthology Christians and Jews have considered sacred, will allow the reader to find words of blessing within. My hope is that a careful reading of the Bible in conversation with Jennifer Bird can help readers find that state of grace.