The Bible in the Contemporary World
Church Times Bookshop £14.40
THIS is a feast of a book, which was a delight to read. That is not surprising when it comes from the pen of such a distinguished biblical scholar as Richard Bauckham. He approaches the scriptures with an eye that is reverent and wise, while at the same time discerning and original, bringing them into conversation with the modern world in an immensely engaging and thought-provoking manner. There was hardly a page on which there was not some arresting thought on either biblical truth or contemporary culture on which constructively to ruminate.
The book brings together 14 essays written for a variety of contexts over a decade. As the author rightly notes, they represent “in a coherent and consistent way an approach to the Bible and to the contemporary world that I have developed over a long period”.
It is an approach from which all could benefit, and it is presented in a lucid and accessible style, which would make it suitable for thinking lay people as well as theologians. One slight irritation was the repetition that occurs as a result of the book’s comprising separate essays. That, however, is only a small problem, since most of the points made are worth repeating. In any event, the flip side is that any of the chapters can be read in isolation.
The essays cover a variety of contemporary concerns — globalisation, freedom and belonging, ecology, God’s suffering, the concept of truth, among them — and bring deep biblical insights to bear on them. I found his exposition on “reading scripture as coherent story” particularly helpful, since it distinguishes (after René Genette) between narrative and story, and faces, head on, the question of the Bible as metanarrative. Bauckham notes that, although metanarrative has received a bad press of late, “to the totalitarianism of twentieth-century regimes the biblical metanarrative has more effectively inspired resistance than anything resembling postmodernism has.”
Bauckham relates how he was thinking about scripture and “had one of those breakthrough moments when you see something in scripture that you have not noticed before, even though the passage is familiar”. This book helped me to have plenty of those. One such comes immediately after that sentence: that love is greater than faith or hope, perhaps, because “in the Bible God does not have faith or hope, but God does love.”
The chapter on freedom insists on the biblical insight that “freedom is fulfilled in being freedom for” is excellent. He is right, it seems to me, to point out that “the contemporary concept of freedom is deficient in having no real idea of what freedom is for.” In this, as in other areas, his critique of contemporary society is worth reading even without the biblical approach that he brings to bear upon it. He suggests, for example, that “a so-called freedom-loving society will be no more than a jungle of competing interests unless it values other goods as well as freedom.”
In conversation with George Steiner’s magisterial Grammars of Creation, Bauckham points out that in the Hebrew Bible “the word ‘god’ (‘elohim) does not always designate the one and only true God, though it usually does. However, the word ‘create’ (bara’) is a word that is used only with God as its subject, a remarkable fact to which theologians have given far too little attention.” This is a creative book, full of insights to which theologians and others would be well advised to give more attention.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.