BOOOK REVIEW — The Bible
On January 1 this year, I started reading the Bible through again. This morning, I finished. After all 66 books and the final “Amen,” four things stood out to me about this sacred book.
I mean this in every way — the obvious ways and subtle. It’s a big book (the paper copy I used most comprised 1,907 pages). And more importantly, it makes big claims. From the creation story to the nature of reality to the meaning of life to its apocalyptic climax, the Bible is expansive and unafraid. It’s a book for big questions and big ideas with big characters and big events.
Along the way this year, I paired my Bible reading with lectures about other ancient texts — Greek mythology and philosophy, Eastern philosophy, world literature. (Thank you, Great Courses!) Some of those traditions handle equally big and important ideas, but none seems so expansive — so radically inclusive of all human experience — as the Bible.
The Bible describes the highest joys and deepest sorrows available to humans. We watch mothers mourn, siblings war, lovers embrace, kings rise, prisoners escape, and prophets wail. We see beauty, betrayal and blood; courage and camaraderie; delight and despair; forgiveness and fornication; greed and gluttony, injustice and infidelity; murder and miracles, tragedy and triumph. Though the text doesn’t present these dramas in the way we’re accustomed to receive them (it was written before the invention of the novel or Netflix), it is dramatic nonetheless. It is full of the kinds of characters, ambitions, conflict and climax that make for memorable and meaningful story.
The Bible is relentlessly real. Over and over again, it names real places and historical personalities. Its settings are Egypt and Bethlehem and Jerusalem — places tour buses visit every day. Its climactic scene happened on a Sunday. Its hero lived in time, in the world, separated from neither. The Bible describes governments and families and wars and cities and mountains that are as much history, geology, and anthropology as they are mythology. This is not a collection of wise and timeless sayings from a sage who has achieved enlightened detachment. These are not fantastical stories of eternally-nested lotus flowers and circular time. The Bible is incessantly linear, persistently personal, and tenaciously historical. It speaks to real lives and material things in the past, today, and tomorrow.
From Genesis to Revelation, if there’s one enduring characteristic of the people of God, it is cluelessness. People are constantly (if expectedly) misunderstanding the ineffable. Moses had no clue what kind of deliverance God would bring. The prophets misunderstood the kind of Messiah they were predicting. The apostles failed to see the kingdom of heaven even though it was among them. And the early church guessed wrong about the time of Jesus’ return. At every stage of God’s grand love story with us, we have misinterpreted, misconstrued, guessed wrong.
Two thousand years after Jesus, we have more information, more backstory, more scholarship about the character and actions of God than any generation before us, but it would be arrogant of us to assume that we understand him, as if we are to be the authors of the next chapter in God’s story. God is above and unlike us. His ways are not ours and neither are his thoughts. What the Biblical record shows us again and again — from Lucifer to the Pharisees — is that those who think they know the mind of God flirt most dangerously with the temptation to usurp him.
The Bible is big, beautiful, grounded and misunderstood. It is those things among millions more. No other book is so maddeningly complex, so impossibly personal and eternal, or so worthy of your time.