Besides being the most-read book of all time, the Bible may also be the most studied, most revised, most picked-apart—and least understood. Religious studies professor Kristin Swenson argues that both taking the text at face value or dismissing it outright are surefire ways to miss out on what makes it so wonderfully weird. Her new book, excerpted below, embraces the Bible’s oddities rather than rationalizing them away and presents a fresh perspective on a text that tends to provide more questions than answers.
Besides lofty wisdom, inspiration, comfort, and guidance, the Bible contains bewildering archaisms, inconsistencies, questionable ethics, and a 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, difficult, and disconcerting both about and in the Bible, and in the process shows how those qualities can actually enrich one’s relationship, religious or not, to the text. I am not trying to convert anybody to anything except to learning. I’m committed to providing information, digging into the text and its background, and sharing questions of my own that might resonate with you. Those questions are both what make me love the Bible and what make that love so complicated …
The Bible invites— nay, demands—interaction, even argument. And I don’t mean simply argument about what the Bible says or means (though that’s inevitable) but argument with the text itself. For the qualities I have cited—its disparate voices and images of God, its fissures and cracks and the endless ways and things to learn about it—the Bible defies the simplistic treatment of so-called literalism. (I say “so-called” because what exactly does it mean to “read the Bible literally,” especially if what one is reading is itself a translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek?) The Bible’s diversity of perspectives and tone, not to say those texts in blatant disagreement with each other, actually models conversation, dialogue, and debate. It could issue no bolder invitation to engagement, no more compelling demand to bring the best of one’s faculties to bear on any interpretation of it.
From A MOST PECULIAR BOOK: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible by Kristin Swenson. Copyright © 2021 by Kristin Swenson and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.