Book Review: How the Bible Actually Works – by Peter Enns

The following review is written as a part of my responsibility as a member of the Launch Team for Pete’s latest book. I received an advance copy in exchange for these words. I also purchased a copy for my Kindle and am eager to share it with anyone in my family who wishes to read it!

Pete Enns is sarcastic, funny, thoughtful, well-educated, occasionally gruff, and often covers what I guess to be a particularly tender heart with a large layer of snark. He chooses to write for an audience who loves snark and is thoughtful and intentional about pursuing the tougher questions regarding their faith and the book it is based on. Pete’s readers are people who want to find their way to understanding how best to understand, interpret and wrestle with that book.

The latest in the growing list of his controversial, well-thought out, relentlessly honest and deeply helpful books is pictured above. I recommend it to you with enthusiasm and also — with a warning. The warning first: if you are not willing to entertain the possibility that the Bible is at once more coherent AND more confusing than any other text you have encountered in your life, this book is not for you.

If, however, you are genuinely searching for answers to tough questions, if you are more than a little bit bothered by what appears to be the changing nature of the God depicted in its pages, or if you want to find a new way to think about a book that you love and have loved for decades, then dig in. You will not be disappointed.

I fall into ALL those categories, with the emphasis on that last one. All my life, I have loved the Bible. I have memorized chunks of it, winning all the badges possible on my little wooden sword in elementary Sunday school. I have enjoyed teaching others about its beauty and wonder from about the age of 15. And I have turned to it for comfort, challenge, assurance and reminders of God’s powerful presence in this crazy, broken world of ours almost every day of my long life.

What I have not ever done is viewed the Bible as a rule book. A guide? Yes. A series of stories that highlight the surprising nature of God’s grace? Sure. Set in concrete thousands of years ago and never to be messed with in any way, ever again? Not a chance.

For me, the Good Book is God’s Word Written as Jesus is God’s Word Living — a fascinating, puzzling, challenging, enlightening AND confusing mix of both human and divine. What I love about this newest of Pete’s books is the thread he pulls out, from start to finish. The theme, if you will. And here it is:

The Bible is a wisdom book — and that, my friends, is the single most helpful definition I have found to date for this virtual library of small volumes, written and collected over about three centuries, all of which happened a long, long time before any of us ever breathed earth’s air. If we can grab hold of that idea, push against it wherever necessary, test out examples of it from a scattering of books and stories between its covers, then we will have a far sturdier foundation for the faith we claim than any fundamentalist, inerrantist, rigid, put-it-in-a-box-designed-to-mark-outsiders-and-insiders point of view ever espoused and shoved down people’s throats.

Can you tell that I am DONE with the Bible-as-weapon mentality found in so many churches today? Yeah, I am done. And so is Pete Enns. Pete Enns, however, also happens to have a PhD in biblical studies and a long career of research, teaching, speaking and writing to back up his ideas. You may not agree with all of those ideas, but I’m here to tell you, you will find them thought-provoking, helpful, and fun to read.

In thirteen chapters, he looks at both Testaments, including stories and ideas that are both familiar and obscure. In each instance, he argues that the Bible itself models for us how to deal with the sometimes contradictory nature of the truths it teaches. In fact, by the time you finish this volume you will give thanks to God for the contradictions because . . . let’s be real, here, okay? Life itself is contradictory and there is no one-size-fits-all answer for many of its questions.

From money to child-rearing to the role of the law in life and faith, Pete takes us down the wisdom road, showing us how the Bible rethinks things, up to and including our understanding (limited as it must be) of the nature of God. Laws are adapted over time, as people and situations change. Even historical events are told and re-told from different time periods and conflicting understandings of what happened and why.

I love this quote, found on pg. 77: “The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation — even a debate — over time.” YES — a conversation, even a debate. What a gift to have such a conversation, printed and in our hands. What a lovely invitation to continue the conversation, to keep asking hard questions to not be frightened by the answers that become clearer with time and experience.

Which leads me to this question: why are we afraid of this truth? Why is it so difficult for us to admit that not everything is wrapped up neatly in this book of ours? What is it inside of us that pounds a book of overwhelming beauty, majesty, truth, conflict, surprise, time-bound customs, and eternal gifts into a system, a rule-book, a codified, rigid set of definitions?

For Pete’s sake (yes, pun intended . . . and also, not!), Jesus modeled this approach himself at every village and watering hole and mountainside and boat bench he ever occupied. He was a story-teller, and not one of those stories was crystal clear. They all require thinking, pondering, wrestling. And the truths they reveal are both timeless and time-bound — yes, they are. BOTH. No, I have never herded sheep, nor will I. And yet, I can sift out truths, I can catch allusions, I can understand the metaphors.

Enough. Let me close this wandering reflection with one final quote from the book — just one of many from my exceedingly marked-up copy:

“We are both bound by the past and charged with remaining open to the movement of God’s Spirit, which is free and never bound to tradition or our theologies that try to articulate it.

Christian theology, in other words, is an exercise in wisdom– perhaps far more than is normally thought. We are not simply maintaining the past, we are transforming it, again and again.” pg. 196

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  1. Bravo. My review was not nearly as articulate but the book was loved just as much. Thanks Diana.

  2. You’ve sold me on this one, Diana. Thanks for this enlightening and thorough review!

  3. “The Bible is a wisdom book”indeed! You’re right, Diana: that’s as concise and accurate a definition as a human can conceive. And surely part of God’s design for his book was the thinking, pondering, and wrestling that would be necessary to access that wisdom. (Who said, “Nothing worth having comes easy?”) The upside is we never hit bottom in the well of wisdom in God’s Word. Even if we live past the age of 100, we’ll still find fresh encouragement and make new discoveries within the pages of our Bibles! Hallelujah!

  4. Elaine Reed says

    You write detailed, articulate, frank reviews! Good job for what sounds like a fascinating book. Your review makes me want to read and recommend. Thanks.