The Bible Makes Sense
Church Times Bookshop £9
Encountering the Bible
SCM Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
HERE are two short books for individuals or groups who want to study the Bible for its value to the Christian life. Both are useful in different ways.
Walter Brueggemann is a world-famous Old Testament scholar who writes many books, both technical and for the general reader: this is one that was published in the United States in 2003, and is here republished by DLT. The Bible, he proposes “is precious to us because it offers us a way of understanding the world in a fresh perspective, a perspective that leads to life, joy, and wholeness”.
It presents God as in a covenant relationship with us. In both Testaments, we are offered the opportunity of getting to know a God who does not live in detached splendour, but who is with and for people. Throughout, there is an insistence on this positive side of the biblical God, seen supremely in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: God “is like the abrasive power and suffering vulnerability of Jesus of Nazareth”.
This is a book that many will find inspiring and profitable. Chapters end with helpful questions for discussion and reflection.
Andrew Village is Reader in Practical and Empirical Theology at York St John University. His book, in SCM’s Learning Church: Theology for Discipleship and Ministry series, seems to me quite brilliant. It deals with all the great issues of biblical authority and inspiration through the metaphor of turning out an attic, in which we might find useful stuff, stuff we cannot identify, tricky stuff, and so on.
The chapter on “Squidgy Stuff” asks: “Can the Bible Mean Anything We Want It to Mean?”. On “Clever Stuff” we find a discussion of “Understanding the Different Worlds of the Biblical Text”. Here, too, there are questions for discussion, and a remarkable set of recommendations for further reading which is right up to date, and covers practically all the main positions in a most even-handed way.
This deserves to become a standard work for people getting into serious biblical study, whether from an academic or a “devotional” point of view: both are catered for.
One thing that Village’s book offers which is not to be found in any other known to me is a consideration of the different psychological types that will be drawn to one or another way of reading the Bible — using the Myers-Briggs approach. Some are sceptical about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but it comes into its own here, illuminating, among other things, why many of the clergy fail to communicate with their congregations about the Bible, because they have such different mental styles from most of the people they are ministering to.
For example, they are often much more amenable to the idea that the Bible contains imaginative fiction than are many people in the pew, though this varies a good deal with churchmanship. What is more, Village has conducted empirical research (see his job title) on attitudes to the Bible, to discover what people want from Bible-reading, and what kind of thing they think the Bible is. This feeds helpfully into his presentation of how we might encounter the Bible in personal or group study. The chapter “Understanding Our Own Preferences in Bible Reading” is pivotal here.
Another unusual feature is a discussion of “The Bible for Agnostics and Atheists”, which does not try to convert anyone, but does show what challenges the Bible raises, through its evident profundity of insight, for anyone who wants to deny that it is about anything real. In the process, the possibility of non-realist Christianity is also frankly broached.
Never does one have the feeling that Village is trying to force his views on the reader. His aim is simply to open up the Bible to an honest reading. He also provides a potted, but very accurate, history of Bible-reading in the Church. He has a marvellous gift for simple, lucid, and fair exposition, and his book deserves to be widely used. It is not a guide to what is in the Bible — there are plenty of those. It is an introduction to different questions and approaches that a Bible-reader needs to have in mind in encountering this complex and difficult text, and it succeeds spectacularly in this aim.
John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, and an Anglican priest.