For the last few weeks, I embarked on a personal project that compares two books, each one representing two strands of Christianity and their approach to reading and interpreting Scripture. The first book is Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin, representing the mainstream, evangelical view. The second is The Bible Tells Me So (my second time reading it) by Peter Enns, representing a more progressive (some might say “liberal”) view.
If you’re familiar with my work, you might assume that I align more with Enns’ view of the Bible – and you would be correct. Wilkin’s book was recommended by a conservative Christian blogger I follow on Instagram. I’ll be honest: I ordered it used from Amazon fully expecting to hate it. I thought it would proclaim innerancy as the only way to read Scripture, refusing to thoughtfully consider the more disturbing parts that involve rape, slavery, and genocide.
While I have my disagreements with Wilkin, I was surprised by how much I didn’t hate her book – in fact, I strongly agreed with her in parts. But obviously not everything, or else this post would not have been written.
It’s quite rare to see Christian authors regard any Jewish methods of textual interpretation, which is what I love most about Enns’ work. Though he is not Jewish in any sense, he spends huge chunks of his book delving into rabbinic literary traditions, the concept of midrash, and how Jews in Jesus’ audience would have been likely to interpret his messages.
Each book can be loosely summarized in the following ways: for Wilkin’s, it’s Don’t let your emotions drive your reading. For Enns, it’s Context, context, context!
But obviously, there’s more to each book than that. I’ll start this series with a more in-depth overview of Women of the Word:
If our reading of the Bible focuses our eyes on anyone other than God, we have gotten backwards the transformation process. Any study of the Bible that seeks to establish our identity without first proclaiming God’s identity will render partial and limited help. We must turn around our habit of asking, “Who am I?” We must first ask, “What does this passage teach me about God?” before we ask it to teach us anything about ourselves. We must acknowledge that the Bible is a book about God. –Page 27
I found myself saying Yes, but no in my head a lot as I read this book – which, for a book about how to read the Bible, is surprisingly short: only 150 pages. I was disappointed that it didn’t go deeper, but this isn’t meant to be a scholarly work – it’s written by someone who represents the average Christian with a job, a family, a life, and probably doesn’t have the time for a big scholarly text. Someone who loves God but doesn’t have a Bible degree, which is most of us. So I can’t fault her too much for that.
My first Yes, but no moment happened rather early in the book, as you can see. Yes, the Bible is a book about God, but it’s not just a book about God – it’s also a book about his people, about Israel. It’s a collection of historical anecdotes, poetry, parables, and proverbs, not all of which are meant to be taken at face value.
Wilkin doesn’t delve much into one of my biggest concerns with the Old Testament: if the Bible’s primary purpose is to tell us who God is, then do the episodes in which God commands genocide mean that God is a blood-thirsty dictator? And in between the last book of the Old Testament and the start of the Gospels, does God undergo some kind of personality transplant?
I don’t want to generalize, but I guess I kind of am: those questions are more likely to be asked in progressive circles than evangelical ones, where God is good all the time! Most of my Christian life has been spent in the kind of churches I imagine Wilkin belongs to, and the questions that make people uncomfortable and provoke doubts about God’s character, which can lead to doubts about faith as a whole, tend to get swept under the rug while the questioner gets accused of heresy.
I did experience at least one Preach, sister! moment in this book, I’m pleased to say. In chapter two, titled The Case for Biblical Literacy, Wilkin outlines some of the most common mindsets people have when they pick up their Bibles – and why they miss the mark. She rightly takes apart a popular meme that circulates a lot on social media and in small groups. You’ve probably seen it: The Bible is God’s love letter to you!
Nope. It’s not. The Iron Age scribes were not thinking about the dilemma of a 21st-century teenager looking to Scripture for advice on when or if she should start dating. They didn’t write Jeremiah 29:11 — For I know the plans I have for you — to high school seniors as they embark on college life. And Paul didn’t write Philippians 4:13 — I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me — to say you can run that marathon on Jesus Fuel and nothing else.
At the same time, the Bible can be used as a source of comfort in times of trial. This is another one of those Yes, but no moments: reading the Psalms can be encouraging. Reminders that God loves us and is with us are much needed. But is that all the Bible is – an emotional support manual? No, of course not. Are we missing the mark is that’s the only way we treat it? Yes, of course.
At the end of the chapter, Wilkin outlines five P’s for sound studying: Study with Purpose, Perspective, Patience, Process, and Prayer. The rest of the book is devoted to expanding these values, much of which are common sense.
While the book doesn’t explicitly focus on the importance of historical and cultural context, at no point does Wilkin dismiss it, either – which is good. However, in explaining the final P – Prayer – she falls into a common trope that is largely responsible for shutting down conversations and debates all over the world: only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit (which occurs through prayer) can we truly understand what the Bible is saying.
Wilkin never acknowledges how many Christians use this approach…and somehow end up with radically different interpretations from other Christians who also claim to have read under the same guidance. Unfortunately, in our fallen world, this is hardly a sound method for serious study. In fact, it’s quite a subjective one.
That’s an issue that Enns tackles in his book, which I will get to in Part 2 of this series. Stay tuned!