"The Bible isn’t a cookbook,” explains theologian Peter Enns in his latest book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. “When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey.”
Your response to those two sentences will probably determine your overall response to the book. If you’re sick of seeing the Bible as a legal, formulaic, contractual book of rules and recipes—if you prefer the idea of a complex, challenging story full of puzzles, paradoxes, and plot development—then you will probably love it. If you already know that the Bible isn’t a cookbook, wonder whether anyone really thinks it is, feel like you’ve heard dozens of writers making this point before, and roll your eyes involuntarily at phrases like “ancient spiritual journey,” then you probably won’t.
Personally, I find myself somewhat torn. I really like reading Peter Enns. He is creative, scholarly, witty, and at times hilarious. His writing is easy to understand, and he lays out his case clearly. And despite his troubled personal history with conservative evangelicalism, he critiques it without rancor. More important, although the overall message of the book—that the Bible isn’t a rulebook—is a somewhat overdone attack on a straw-man, his seven chapters each make important points evangelicals have often missed.
Those points, in brief: The Bible is, and functions like, an ancient book (chapter 1). God lets his children tell the story, and what they mean isn’t always what we assume it means (chapter 2). The Old Testament narrates different stories in different ways, with specific circumstances in mind (chapter 3), and it offers different perspectives on all sorts of things, including the nature of God (chapter 4). Jesus didn’t read his Bible in the same way we often do (chapter 5). Paul read the whole Bible afresh, in light of Jesus (chapter 6). And we need to let the Bible be the Bible, rather than what we want it to be (chapter 7).
Enns also brings some sparkling insights to the table, and the book is strongest when he is illuminating particular books (rather than telling us what the Bible isn’t). He shows how Kings and Chronicles are narrated in completely different ways, because of the different situations they are addressing. He traces the youngest-son theme through Genesis, and explains its significance in light of the rift between Israel and Judah. He explains what the editor of the Exodus story is up to, links Eden to the exile, and connects three texts about the separating of waters (Creation, Flood, Red Sea). Admittedly, Enns is far from the first scholar to tackle these themes. But he communicates them to a general audience with clarity and verve, and parts of the book are a joy to read.
Yet the book is also fundamentally imbalanced. Enns is so eager to show how “messy” and “weird” the Bible is that he frequently exaggerates difficulties, presents a one-sided picture, or neglects obvious resolutions to the "contradictions" he puts forward. So, for instance, he shows us differences between sacrificial laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy and calls them contradictions, without acknowledging that the former are given for life in the wilderness, and the latter for life in the Promised Land. He finds confusion about how many “gods” there were in the Old Testament, without pointing out that biblical writers are able both to affirm many “gods” and only one God in the same text, because of their theology of idols and demons (e.g. Isa. 44:6-20; 1 Cor. 8:4-6). His paraphrases sometimes create discrepancies out of thin air. Nobody but Enns, surely, could read Leviticus 17:15-16 as saying “sure, you can eat mauled animal carcasses,” and hence conflicting with instructions elsewhere. Many more examples could be given.