Book Write-Up: Saving the Bible from Ourselves

Glenn R. Paauw.  Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Glenn R. Paauw is critical of how Christianity has treated the Bible.

He does not care for the division of the Bible into chapters and verses, for he believes that this has made the Bible into a book of aphorisms that one can quote out of context, often for quick inspiration.  He is critical of the extensive notes in the Geneva Bible because he thinks that the notes overshadow the biblical text and prevent the Bible from being the Bible.  He critiques the individualistic approach to reading and engaging the Bible in the West, for he believes that this discourages people from hearing perspectives other than their own, plus he contends that the biblical writings were and should be about community formation.  He thinks that there should be an aesthetic quality in terms of how Bibles look, which contrasts with the mass production of Bibles.

If there is a theme that runs throughout this book, it is that the Bible is earthy.  Its writings originated in historical contexts to speak to them.  God chose to be revealed and to act within the messiness of human history.  The Bible’s vision is of a renewed earth where justice reigns and where God tabernacles, rather than souls going to heaven.  It had things to say about how a just society should look, about how people can live their everyday lives in a godly manner, and about how the body of Christ should be as a community.  It had stories, not just abstract ideas.  God values beauty and matter, so the aesthetic appearance of Bibles is significant, as far as Paauw is concerned.

Paauw is often specific about how he believes that Christians should engage the Bible, but occasionally he is not so specific.  He believes that Christians reading the Bible should digest whole biblical books rather than focusing on individual verses as if they are disconnected aphorisms.  He thinks that Christians should read the Bible in community and ask themselves what the text has to say about how the community should be.  On how the Bible should look aesthetically, he refers to how fancy Bibles looked in the past (i.e., golden print), but I do not recall him really saying how he believes Bibles should look today.  Paauw is critical of Bibles having extensive notes, yet he want for people to consider the historical contexts of the biblical writings.  Often, though, notes are needed for Bible readers to do that.

As far as content is concerned, Paauw does not say much that is new.  Still, he says what he says well.  His prose is elegant, beautiful, and sometimes even riveting.  I could almost feel the earthiness of the Bible as I read this book.  Paauw also draws from authors, scholars, and thinkers, such as N.T. Wright, Alan Segal, and Thomas Cahill.  (On Cahill, what Cahill has to say about the Jews conceiving of life as a story that has a purpose was beautiful.)  Paauw’s book is a book of substance.  Even if I did not learn anything dramatically new, I felt as if I were eating a hearty meal and was being reminded of important truths.

Paauw was saying things that have gotten on my nerves when other Christians have said them.  In some cases, Paauw managed to present them in a manner that I found pleasing and insightful.  In other cases, the idea still rubbed me the wrong way, but I could see Paauw’s point.

An example of the former concerns the contention by many Christians that the Bible is Christocentric: that it prepares the way, foreshadows, and even predicts Jesus Christ.  I have long felt that such an approach projects Christianity onto the Hebrew Bible, rather than allowing the Hebrew Scriptures to be themselves, with their own diverse perspectives.  Some Christians say that, if you’re not seeing Christ in the Hebrew Bible, then you are reading it wrong, to which I say that it is those who fail to see Christ in the Hebrew Bible who are reading what the text actually says.  These reservations notwithstanding, I actually liked what Paauw said on page 119: “And because the Bible is a Christocentric set of books, we cannot merely pick up fragments from just anywhere and presume they are God’s final answer.”  Maybe the Bible says diverse things, but what should we consider to be God’s final answer?  People may disagree on this, but I can understand Paauw’s point that it should be Christ.

As a socially-anxious loner who has difficulty fitting into Christian communities, I had problems with Paauw’s emphasis on community.  Like the people Paauw criticizes, I tend to emphasize my interior, personal spiritual journey.  I would also say that there is such a theme in the Bible—-of people’s walk with God as individuals, or their personal relationship with God.  At the same time, I have to agree with Paauw that there is also a communal focus in the Bible.  Whether that entirely overlaps with what Christian communitarians have to say is debatable, in my opinion.  (Where does the Bible say that we have to be in “deep community,” as many Christians say?  And is the idea that the church is a community foreshadowing the coming Kingdom of God actually in Scripture, or is it a theological interpretation that is being projected onto the Bible?)  Still, there is a lot in the Bible about loving others in the body of Christ.  I just wish that more Christian books acknowledged that there are personalities that are introverted, and that rigorously wrestled with how they can bring their strengths into the body of Christ: how they can be part of a community, while also being themselves.

I take some issue with Paauw’s discussion of the immortality of the soul.  I agree with his overall point the the Bible talks about God’s renewal of the physical cosmos and the resurrection of the dead.  Still, the immortality of the soul is a theme that occurs in Second Temple Jewish works; in my opinion, it is not a Christian emphasis that developed long after Jesus failed to return as a way to encourage people to fear a coming judgment or anticipate heavenly rewards immediately after their death.  (Paauw does not say this is how a belief in the immortal soul originated, but he argues that this is how it came to be stressed in Christianity, as he draws from Alan Segal.)  Paauw does well to stress the Bible’s earthly emphasis, and yet writings forming the historical background for the New Testament, and also statements in the New Testament itself, arguably have a more heavenly focus.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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